“My dad says I wasn’t allowed to say anything”
The name Michael R. Roskam may become very familiar around cinematic circles—possibly as soon as next spring. Beating out all other accomplished filmmakers from Belgium, it is this writer/director’s first feature Rundskop [Bullhead] that has won the honor of representing its country at the Oscars. You’ll understand why it prevailed quickly, earning the praise of not just being a great debut, but a great film too.
Assured, intelligent, and gripping, this gangster tale isn’t necessarily unique in tone but is completely fresh in subject matter. Instead of cocaine or heroine as the central drug manufactured and distributed, the Flemish mob families here deal cows. By injecting growth hormones, multiple farms in Belgium have cultivated strong illegal trade circles of infused beef and milk. It’s big business and thusly under constant police surveillance, but somehow they’ve managed to stay off the radar from any real charges or probable cause until a heinous act by an over-confident trader named Marc DeCuyper (Sam Louwyck) changes the game. Tired of meddling law enforcement, this kingpin decides to send a message by putting his muscle onto a cop tailing him. It’s a murder that begs for retribution, the law’s newfound intensity threatening to bring the whole web down.
At the center of the fight rests Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). In his thirties, this mountain of a man plays the role of both muscle and brains for his Uncle Eddy. An obvious user of steroids himself, he is a formidable presence to be avoided. When a cattle rancher decides to sell his cows to another family out of town, Jacky shows up to give the message that Limburg is the only place those beasts can go. But with Eddy staying behind the scenes, it is also Jacky who goes into the meetings and makes decisions on who the family will deal with. So when a colleague in Sam Raymond (Frank Lammers) comes with a proposition to become DeCuyper’s new supplier, the brute tags along to see if the deal can be trusted, unaware of what has happened behind the scenes until a news report on TV talks of the dead officer.
The Vanmarsenille cows are in demand and Jacky must oblige Raymond and DeCuyper to at least see the terms on the table. It’s a meet that brings new, carefully written roles into the mix from the Walloon (French-speaking) Filippini brothers David (Philippe Grand’Henry) and Christian (Erico Salamone), the hormone trade liaison who moonlights as a police informant Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), policemen Eva (Barbara Sarafian) and Antony (Tibo Vandenborre), and DeCuyper’s right-hand of pain, Richter (Mike Reus). They all partake in this dance to discover who has the power to lead and the resources to remain entrenched at the top—a tango Jacky would love nothing more than to walk away from. But with Raymond working behind his back and his own distracted life crossing paths with people he hasn’t seen in twenty years, the chaos pulls him down beneath the surface to tread these dangerous waters without an escape.
As with all great gangster films, though, it isn’t the story at its back that creates its unforgettable allure. The characters always resonate the most, no matter how engrossing the twists and turns sustaining this steroid business under the increased police presence are. Flashbacks to the past unearth hidden connections between the many faces onscreen, each crucial to Jacky’s psyche and actions. More than a muscle-clad behemoth, this man is a lost, introverted nightmare who is afraid to speak with women and quick to fly off the handle with associates. He may know cows, but to what extent has he invested his life into his father’s farm? More beast than human himself, these animals give reason and purpose while his family only puts him down.
Each step forward into the story sheds light on exactly why this is—the reason he takes steroids without flinching at side effects a dark blight on his existence stemming back to childhood and the Schepers clan. Schoenarts gives a star-making performance showing the conflicted psyche that never healed from the incident, trapped in his mind with only his fists as weapons for brief reprieve. We watch him shadowbox after shooting up, fighting an invisible enemy the way he wished he could have as a scrawny little lad decades previous. The memories of Lucia Schepers’ (Jeanne Dandoy) beauty and her brother Bruno’s (David Murgia) sociopathic insanity are always at the front of his mind. He fights his urges and ignores the insults until his own defenses breakdown once the past coincidentally floods back on DeCuyper’s arrival with dire consequences.
Shot with a flair for the dramatic, Roskam starts the whole thing off with a poised camera pan around a building’s corner, pushing forward after the turn towards an unsuspecting man in the distance. It’s a fearless move that tips us off to the aesthetically assured visuals throughout and the brilliant ability to use objects and actors in his frames as means to crop and reveal crucial bits of the scene when necessary. The score holds it all together too, soaring to operatic heights in an unforgettable finale and pulsating through a club sequence like Jacky’s own heart, nervous with fear. His temper—both checked and unchecked depending on who is with him at the time—is the driving force for everything. His name alone comes up in conversations between people while off screen, his unfortunate inclusion in the dirty deeds shown just one more stroke of bad luck.
Despite the plethora of characters, Bullhead is constructed in a way that never confuses or overwhelms. The cuts into Jacky’s past are natural and necessary in understanding his motivations; these morsels of information sprinkled in at the perfect moments for clarity. We watch the rise and fall of a young boy with promise and the mirrored journey his adult self takes too—the sensitivity that will be his undoing ever-present beneath the physical façade he built. Guys like the Filippini brothers infuse humor, Bruno fear, and Lucia a glimmer of hope. In an underworld of nefarious men, however, hope isn’t a commodity in large supply. So, while relationships from the past find reconciliation and forgiveness, it is the ticking of the present’s time bomb we hear pushing everyone to the edge. A sympathetic anti-hero, Jacky may one day have been better than the circumstances he was born into. Fate never gave him the chance to find out.
 Matthias Schoenaerts as “Jacky Vanmarsenille”
 Jeroen Perceval as “Diederik Maes”
 Matthias Schoenaerts as “Jacky Vanmarsenille”