Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Bullhead,' ah those mean Belgian fields

Bullhead -- a Belgian movie populated by thugs who sell illegal drugs used to fatten cattle -- is one of five 2012 nominees for best foreign-language film. Peculiar and grim, the movie focuses on the distorted life of a steroid-using young man (Matthias Schoenaerts) who suffered a debilitating beating when he was a kid. Schoenaerts' Jacky now finds himself living through an uneasy adulthood. I'd never heard of the so-called "hormone mafia" before Bullhead, and the fact that the movie can be a bit confusing didn't help clarify matters. Bullhead begins with a provocative bit of narration that serves as introductory warning: "In the end," we're told, "we're all fucked." Flag hoisted. Message delivered. There's bleak sailing ahead. The movie's ability to hold us in its grip springs from Schoenaerts' roid-raging performance as a cattle farmer who injects himself with staggering amounts of testosterone. At first, Schoenaerts' Jacky seems like one more addition to an endless gallery of brutal movie thugs, but Bullhead enables us to understand Jacky's brooding frustrations. It eventually becomes clear that director Michael R. Roskam -- who's making his feature debut -- has concocted an elaborate saga in which Jacky seeks a revenge that begins to look like the price he expects the world to pay for the torments he's suffered. Roskam's weird, counter-intuitive take on bucolic life pushes a mean-streets mentality into the rural world of cattle farming. As the story develops, a cop is murdered; a hormone trafficker tries to cover the crime; and Jacky -- a grotesque, graceless and sometimes pathetic figure -- veers further out of control. The emotional core of the story centers of Jacky's strained relationship with a childhood pal (Jeanne Dandoy) who witnessed what happened to young Jacky, but didn't intervene. Roskam catches us up in Jacky's rage, despair and loneliness, and a bulked-up Schoenaerts creates a scary, sad character who can't tame his own violence, much less that of the world. Intense and chastening, Bullhead sometimes feels a bit too much like a hormone-stoked freak show, but it leaves you stunned.

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