What does it mean to be a man? This is the central question at the heart of Bullhead, a Belgian film that’s ostensibly a crime drama about steroids, but which is really investigating the meaning of masculintity, gender identity, sexuality, cultural standards and even the very definition of humanity - what separates us from beasts. And it’s all explored through one of the performances of the year, by Matthias Schoenaerts.
He plays Jacky, a Flemish cattle rancher who deals with the mafia for black market steroids for his cows. Jacky is also a steroid user as well, a man who bulks up his body as a way of dealing with a truly horrific childhood trauma (which I can’t reveal here as it’s a spoiler, but it gets to the very heart of the film’s thematic obsessions). When the ‘hormone mafia’ kills an investigating cop, things begin to get heavy. At the same time Jacky finds the young girl who was at the center of his trauma, all grown up, as well as reconnecting with a long-lost friend from that incident, who has grown up to be a small time mafioso and police informant.
There’s a lot happening here, but also not much happening. Bullhead is a film that builds slowly and quietly; while there are scenes of Jacky doing intense shadow-boxing after shooting himself up with juice, folks waiting for Bronson-style fight theatrics will be disappointed. The film builds to an explosive climax, but even that is relatively subdued. Sometimes Bullhead seems to be on track and sometimes it wanders off; it’s a touch too long for the ending that it has, but I do feel like the smallness of the climax is purposeful, and part of the movie’s examination of manliness.
It’s the layers - both to the central metaphor and Schoenaerts’ empathetic performance - that makes Bullhead so fascinating. In many ways this is a variation on the Frankenstein story, with Jacky as the very understandable monster at the center. His story is part tragedy, part self-destruction but always sad and fascinating. It’s a brave performance, requiring Schoenaerts to go from roid rage to crying in the bathtub, rape shower style, and without that performance Bullhead is just a slightly slow Belgian crime story. But with that performance, Bullhead is fascinating and beautiful and brutal. It’s not for everyone, but those with the patience required will find a movie that’s deep and worthwhile.