There’s a restaurant right by the Alamo Drafthouse’s parking lot, a Tex Mex place called Maudie’s that has a sign I’ve walked past several times during the festival so far. It says something about “There’s no bull in our beef,” and lists all the things their meat does not have in it, including hormones. It’s a selling point these days if you’re growing animals that are just animals, and it’s also something that I think takes place in a world I know nothing about.
That world is the setting of the provocative, disturbing new film “Bullhead,” from Belgian writer/director Michael Roskam, and this is one of the most original things I’ve seen here this week, strong and adult and sweeping in the way it handles some very complicated ideas about manhood and what we owe others as we move through this world. This is not a film that plays things easy or that establishes any clear moral lines early on. Both Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval) move in this shady not-quite-black market world, and when they run into each other early in this film, it’s a shock to both of them. There’s some shared history here.
But what’s the history? Why does Jacky almost melt down when he runs into Diederik? And why does Diederik have meetings with police officers? Jacky’s family is a cattle family for generations, and there are times where they buy and use illegal hormones and drugs to help grow their beef quicker and cheaper. Jacky also uses hormones and steroids to grow himself, and Schoenaerts is terrifying in the film. People talk about the crazy transformation Tom Hardy went through on “Bronson” and “Warrior,” but this is at least that startling. He plays Jacky as a big dumb animal, emotionally stunted and unable to really connect to anyone. When we finally start to piece together Jacky’s history, it’s a miracle he’s not just constantly trying to kill everyone he encounters. He’s got a right to his anger, a reason behind his rage, and he changed himself because he had to if he was going to survive.
There’s a fair amount of the larger crime story in “Bullhead” that was pulled from real headlines, and it’s dense, potentially confusing stuff. The film really wrestles with a world where everyone has secrets and everyone wears a public face and a private one, and sometimes more than one of each, and once it starts to pay off the various story threads it establishes, “Bullhead” is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in a theater this year. It’s an unsubtle sledgehammer of a movie, emotionally speaking, but that’s exactly what I like about it. I think Roskam has an amazing voice for a first time feature director, and he really builds a beautiful sense of inevitable horror, a sinking feeling that is almost impossible to bear by the end of the film. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.
Right now, “Bullhead” doesn’t have any plan for US distribution. I hope that changes.