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You never know what to expect from a film whose characters’ main concern is the farm animal trade, with an emphasis on doped farm animals and the drugs that bring them slaughter faster than ever. Drawing comparisons to Jacques Audiard‘s wonderful A Prophet (2009), I had VERY high expectations. Couple that with Bullhead getting one of the five nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film (from Belgium) at this year’s Academy Awards, the stakes were high.

The opening scene of Michaël Roskam‘s Bullhead deceives us. Jacky (played incredibly by Matthias Schoenaerts) braces a cattle supplier who has refused to supply his Uncle Eddy with animals. Jacky, a hulking figure thick with muscles, smacks the farmer around until he agrees to Jacky’s demands. Jacky represents everything in a mafia hood that we’ve seen time and time again in more movies than any of us can count. However, as the camera follows him away from this confrontation, we see Roskam shows us something that we don’t normally see – Jacky sweating, a look on his face as if he is unsure about what he’s just done. This big machine of a man seems to have doubted what he’s just done. Usually this is the arc of a character in a mafia film – one who loses the tastes for the work, gets sloppy and decides to go straight which never works out as they always have to pay for their crimes. Roskam bypasses this overused convention, and more power to him. Now we have a movie I want to watch.

The film cuts to the next scene where Jacky sits on the side of a tub, naked, a near replica of Rodin’s The Thinker – as chiseled and cut as the stone sculpture. He gets up and walks over to a small refrigerator next to the toilet and what do we see…hundreds of tiny vials of what can only be steroids. Now we have a new twist on the opening scene – is Jacky sweating his enforcer role because of the juice?

The mafia version of The Thinker? (Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille)

Make no mistake, this film is a direct meditation on masculinity – what happens when you lose it and what lengths some will go to get it back. Jacky, on the surface, is the poster child for what most would say is the ideal masculine body. He’s huge, ripped like few others, and a challenge to no one in a physical sense. This is evident from the opening scene. But we find out that Jacky isn’t just some mindless thug, getting off on the violence that comes as part of his role in his family’s operation. There is a very real reason he is the way he is, does what he does, including the steroids, and that’s why this film is so successful. Schoenaerts and Roskam build a very nuanced, complex character for us as the film continues along.

When Jacky meets with a new business partner and his entourage, he encounters and old friend, Diederik (Joeren Perceval), and this meeting leads us to the event that changed Jacky’s life forever, the act that stole his masculinity at a young age. All the pieces then fall into place, orchestrated nicely by Roskam’s able hand.  We as the viewer don’t see that actual act as it takes place. Thankfully we are spared the gruesomeness despite seeing its effect on the young Jacky. However, like the beating scene in Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth or the curbing scene in American History X, the unseen violence contained in the act reverberates through the scene and ripples throughout the rest of the film. It is unbelievably powerful and equally as sad. Diederik and Jacky’s friendship ended over the event as Jonge, the boy who perpetuated the act was the son of a wealthy businessman who held the futures of Jacky and Diederik’s families in the balance. Diederik’s father refused to have his son testify out of fear of losing everything they had.

Jacky’s old friend, Diederik (Joeren Perceval).

And it is this revelation that leads Jacky through the rest of the film.  Like Humbert Humbert (without the pedophilia, of course) whose attraction for 12-year olds remained in a stasis after his girlfriend Annabel Leigh died, Jacky had fallen in love with the sister of the perpetrator of his crime and never shook that feeling. Over the years, he has stalked Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), keeping up with her whereabouts and finally approaches her in the perfume shop where she works. Of course she doesn’t recognize Jacky, but he plays that to his advantage. He follows her to a club where they finally interact. When one of her male friends steals her away and dances with her, Jacky quite literally sees red -the club lights bathe him in a devilish red swatch of light. Jacky waits for him to leave and nearly beats the life out of him, dredging up the violence that created him years ago and exacting it on someone who quite possibly acts as a surrogate for Lucia’s brother Jonge.

Jacky’s love interest, Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy)

What should come as the moment of catharsis for Jacky, doesn’t play out that way. He finds where Lucia’s brother is after following her and he finally confronts him. And this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for – justice is about to be served by two hulking fists…but wait. Jonge is clearly a mental patient in an assisted living facillity and Jacky can’t seem to find the balls (pun intended) to do what he likely has been planning since the incident occurred between the two years ago. But what does he do? He calls Lucia as a prank and she comes back to the hospital and unknowingly stops him from killing her brother. Sigh. I wanted to see violence in that room because for once it was justified. I wanted Jacky to exact his revenge. But I didn’t get it. Damn it.The film plays itself out in somewhat surprising fashion, but I’ll leave that for you to watch.

I was entranced by Jacky’s character this entire film and not since Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises have I watched a character study this intense. Two things are clear to me after watching this film: Matthias Schoenaerts is a legitimate up-and-comer in the acting world and seems like he has the chops to be a Belgian Tom Hardy (reference his performance in Bronson, which is incredible) and Michaël Roskam has a bright future ahead of himself as a director. Bullhead is his first film, and judging by what he has accomplished out of the gate, I expect even better in his next efforts.

This gritty film hit me like one of Jacky’s punches. Luckily, I was able to survive.