Belgian stud Matthias Schoenaerts is a big talent with a big future, and Bullhead was his breakout movie. It’s available to watch at SBS On Demand.
24 Oct 2014 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 16 Sep 2016 - 2:21 PM

This is a different view of Belgium

The masterful work of the Dardenne Brothers has given cinema audiences an engrossing, ground-level view of one strata of Belgian life, the frayed working class communities around Namur, but Bullhead is a different Belgium: semi-rural, clannish, and heavy with the fetid air of guilt turned into responsibility. Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a cattle farmer/enforcer for his family, whose talent lies in the use of illegal growth hormones to get their product profitably (and illegally) bulked up and quicker to market, and they’re so good at the business that a major crime syndicate wants to partner with them.

Matthias Schoenaerts is an actor you need to know

The Belgian, who has since been prominent in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, dominates every scene he is in. Jacky, who has been using virtually the same steroids that they give the cattle, has a menacing bulk to him (it took Schoenaerts two years to naturally build up to the required size) and he trails a barely suppressed air of physical violence with him. But what makes the performance so exceptional is that it steadily becomes clear how vulnerable the young man is, and how his size is a desperate means of blotting out a tragic childhood event.

“You are all animals”

That’s what Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy) says to Jacky at one point, and while she runs a perfume store instead of a china shop, he’s definitely the bull who looks like he’ll rampage through her life at any moment. It’s Lucia who holds out a degree of hope for Jacky, and that he can perhaps change his life, especially now that a former friend, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who betrayed at a crucial moment as a child, has returned and is part of the Flemish “hormone mafia” whose action may already have come to encompass murder.

The Academy Award nomination was deserved

Bullhead was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, and while it lost out to Asghar Farhadi’s exceptional A Separation, Michael R. Roskam’s debut feature certainly doesn’t pale in direct comparison. It’s a thriller with a genuine moral centre, and while Jacky is repeatedly shown swaggering in slow motion, taking comfort in his sheer bulk, the picture is just as alert as to what transpires inside him and how he’s trying to change course.

The cinematography is impeccable

Nicolas Karakatsanis shows a remarkable facility with light throughout Bullhead, creating a murky hinterland that comes to match the allegiances and attitudes of those that Jacky is collaborating with. And as big as the lead character is, there are shots where he looks tragically small, as if all his armour has been stripped away. There are several crucial reasons why you won’t forget Bullhead in a hurry, and Karakatsanis is definitely one of them.

Watch 'Bullhead' at SBS On Demand