What makes a man a man? That simple but weighty question provides a great deal of the subtext in Michael R. Roskam's film Bullhead (aka Rundskop). On the surface, it's a crime thriller set against the cattle-farming industry in Belgium (not exactly a theme that's been done to death), but at its core, Bullhead is a character study of a man wrestling with who he is and who he is not, and how the strain is tearing at his body and mind.
In Bullhead, Matthias Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, who works at his family's farm raising cattle for beef wholesalers. Jacky also has another job, which is more lucrative but quite dangerous -- he's in cahoots with gangsters who sell illegal growth hormones that have been banned by Belgian authorities and that allow farmers to bring their animals to market quicker and more profitably. Jacky looks like the sort of hard man who would be well-suited for a life in organized crime: He's tall, muscular, and a formidable opponent in a fight. However, Jacky also has an uncertain temper and sometimes flies into spasms of violent rage, and there's a reason for his unpredictable behavior. When Jacky was on the verge of adolescence, he was brutally attacked by the son of a local crime boss, a psychotic teenager who removed Jacky's testicles with a brick. His doctor put him on a regimen of testosterone to replace the hormones his body could no longer produce, and two decades later, Jacky depends on massive doses of hormones, steroids, and other black-market medications to transform himself into the feared enforcer he is today. Beneath it all, Jacky is an emotional wreck who resents his family for not standing up to his attacker (fearing reprisals from the boy's father), he becomes enraged when anyone questions his manhood, and is inwardly bitter and remorseful about the family and long-term relationships he will never have. As Jacky struggles with these crises, he finds himself caught up in a criminal investigation after De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), a meat wholesaler with underworld connections, approaches him about helping to move bootleg hormones. When a policeman looking into his activities turns up dead, Jacky wants out of the deal, though he may already be in too deep for his own good.
Bullhead's narrative is often too convoluted, as the dirty dealings among the hormone traders are mixed-up with crooks-turned-police informants, jaded detectives, gangsters who may or may not be gay, the less-than-cordial relations between French and Dutch-speaking Belgians, and a pair of bumbling auto repairmen who could have stepped out of an early Guy Ritchie film. But while all of this may loosely tie in with the story Michael R. Roskam has chosen to tell, the real focal point of the movie is Schoenaerts as Jacky, and it's his effort that makes Bullhead work. Jacky is a man whose life is built around keeping secrets, but Schoenaerts is able to communicate a great deal with small gestures and passing glances, and despite his massive size and often violent actions, the actor makes Jacky a tragic figure whose actions hide a wealth of physical and emotional agony. Schoenaerts is so impressive that it's a shame the rest of the film doesn't measure up to his work; Jeanne Dandoy is good as Lucia, a woman from Jacky's past who haunts him on several levels, but much of the rest of the cast seem mannered and one-dimensional, and despite Roskam's keen eye and appropriately gritty but painterly visual style, the pacing is inconsistent and the movie takes its time lurching to a conclusion that isn't especially satisfying. Bullhead is Roskam's first feature film, and while it shows a great deal of promise, Schoenaerts is ultimately the talent that brings this picture to life. Although he helps make it into a powerful and disturbing experience, like his character, Bullhead seems bulkier and less stable than it was truly meant to be.