Director Michael R. Roskam makes his directorial debut with Bullhead, a fascinating if uneven film that centers on two enforcers within Belgium’s “hormone mafia.” Apparently the hormone mafia is a real thing, though I confess I’ve never heard of it. Regardless, Bullhead fails to work as a Scorsese-esque crime movie, but it is a compelling as a character study of two similarly damaged, violent men attempting to cope with a shared childhood tragedy.
Bullhead follows a convoluted drug deal between two factions within Belgium’s criminal underworld that occurs in the wake of the murder of a federal police officer. Both sides are paranoid that the police are on to them, and both are suspicious of each other. The heart of the story centers on Jacky and Diedrick, childhood friends working as hired goons on opposite ends of the deal.
As a gangster picture, Bullhead is muddled and disorganized. The players in this movie aren’t conventional gangsters so much as unethical businessmen. They cut deals concerning the transport and sale of cattle and steroids over extravagant meals, and that’s about it. Threats of bodily injury are bandied around, but everyone seems mostly too lethargic to follow through. Lengthy passages following two clueless mechanics as they attempt to dispose of a vehicle connected with the murder of a police officer provide comic relief in a movie that probably shouldn’t have any. The murder of the officer, by the way, is never shown on film. All in all, the depiction of underworld operatives in this movie is alternatingly odd and mundane.
Matthias Schoenaerts as the titular muscle bound enforcer carries the entire movie. He tackles the role with a mix of masculine aggression and childlike innocence, which is absolutely necessary for the character. Without spoiling too much, Jacky is unable to maintain a normal life because he lost his testicles in a violent incident as a young boy. No longer able to rely on his own biology to propel him into manhood, he has to rely on steroid injections to maintain muscle mass and secondary masculine traits. He has all of the traits of a man except where it really counts, and as a result, he finds himself an outsider, looking with envy on the social environment that surrounds him. He has no biological urges allowing him to intuitively interact with women. He can only watch with puzzlement as others engage in natural sexual behavior. Jacky, of course, compensates by beating people to a pulp when it suits him.
Joeren Perceval also gives an extremely effective performance as Jacky’s counterpart. While not as physically intimidating as the bulky Jacky, he also finds himself in the role of an enforcer thug, and he carries himself appropriately. Similarly, he also finds himself unable to engage in any sort of intimate relationship: His homosexuality is stigmatized within subculture in which he runs.
The two principal characters really make the movie. They aren’t characters of a sort you typically see in gangster movies, and the drama surrounding these two men as they cross paths for the first time in decades is far more interesting than the murder subplot that drives the film. Both Jacky and Diederik are both scarred by their common history, and they both are gelded: Jacky as a result of a traumatic childhood injury and Diedrick as a result of his sexual preferences.
Neither character fully realizes how much they each have in common, and they contrast with each other in interesting ways. Both, however, compensate for their deficiencies, real and perceived, with tough talk, anger, and violence. Schoenaerts and Perceval are fun to watch while they quietly stew in their own rage; Schoenarts is even more fun to watch when he explodes.
For all of its flaws, Bullhead is a fascinating exploration of masculinity and violence. The film itself, however, would have benefitted from a shorter runtime and being edited into a more focused character study. The two main characters steal the movie; everything else is merely a distraction.