Bullhead: Here’s the Beef

Oscar-nominated Belgian drama Bullhead successfully mashes up dark drama and crime thriller, set in the heretofore unexplored world of illegal beef-hormone trafficking.

This year’s Oscars had a particularly good crop of Foreign Film nominations, with dark Holocaust film In Darkness, Israeli comic drama Footnote, hometown favourite Monsieur Lazhar and A Separation, the deserving winner from Iran. The last of the nominees to hit the screen over here is Bullhead, an intense Belgian drama set in the world of illegal beef-hormone traffickers. (I personally wasn’t aware of this traffic, but it’s nice to see a crime story about something other than drugs or guns for a change.)

The film’s anti-hero is Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a giant, menacing, yet sensitive and brooding enforcer in the family business of providing hormonally modified cattle for the black market. Both his physical immensity and his withdrawn nature, it turns out, are due to a nasty childhood incident — one guaranteed to make male viewers recoil in primal horror — which has left him dependent on a steady diet of testosterone injections, but still too shy to approach women.

Meanwhile, the gangland slaying of a cop on the hormone beat has the law tightening the net around the trade, enabled by an informant (Jeroen Perceval) who happens to be Jacky’s childhood friend (and witness to the traumatic incident).

Writer/director Michael R. Roskam weaves together the two narratives quite nicely, and the insights into Belgian society are interesting (it’s nice, I suppose, to know there are other places with two cultures who mistrust and misunderstand each other so deeply) and Schoenaerts is both scary and heartbreaking as the damaged Jacky. The parallel between him and his captive, drugged-up cattle is occasionally laid on a little thick (the Hollywood tendency to spell things out is really starting to creep into art cinema), but otherwise it’s a well-acted, suspenseful and captivating mash-up of crime story and tragic personal drama. ■

Bullhead opens Sept. 13 at Cinéma du Parc

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