Based on a small sample of films so far, the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival is one of the most violent in memory. It's not gunplay, but gross, ugly, physical violence of a cruelly imaginative sort. In the British "miserabalist" horror film, Kill List, a man is brutally beaten to death in his kitchen. In Snowtown, serial killers torture a man slowly in a bathroom with hammers. Now, in Bullhead, something horrible happens to a kid.
The incident happens about halfway through the film, so forewarned viewers can sense the approaching event and at least close their eyes. But this terrible art of violence seems much too big for what first time director Michael R. Roskam wants it to represent, though Bullhead did go on to represent Belgium as an Oscar nominee for best film.
Bullhead (Rundskop) concerns one Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts, who pulls a De Niro and bulks up for the role). Jacky is an existential isolate, a 30-year-old single man who runs the family cattle farm with his uncle. A shady veterinarian suggests that the Vanmarsenille family start selling their meat to gangster Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck), a member of what the film calls the "hormone mafia." Decuyper is dangerous, and the man behind the recent murder of a cop investigating his enterprise. Jacky, however, not only "beefs up" his cows, but himself as well. He is addicted to steroids, with the attendant physical changes and emotional instability. He is either sullen and withdrawn or RoboCop on a 'roid rage. The criminal element is the complicated jumping point for the rest of the film, which instead inspects Jacky's character, as much as it can from his glum exterior. In addition to Jacky's getting into bed with the devil, and his addiction issues, he's had a lifelong crush on a neighboring farm girl who now works in a shop for women's fineries. She speaks French and one of the film's observational stances is to reflect the tension between Dutch-speaking Flemish citizens and their French-speaking Walloon antagonists.
Jacky's steroid use is apparently meant to compensate for his lack of manhood. As a kid, a bully captured Jacky and crush his balls with two rocks as the assailant's gang looked on, in a sequence that serves as the thrust of the film's second large scale section. This is Jacky's defining moment, and a horrific one, but it's impact seems to get lost in the film's byways of a failing romance, a crime story, and side issues with a pair of moronic garage mechanics. Perhaps Jacky's emasculation is symbolic of Belgium's impotence in the European market, or of European manhood in crisis due to stagnation or the rise of feminism, or whatever – the film is oblique about its meanings, aside from a depressing or despairing opening voice over. What is clear is that the castration, taken both symbolically or literally, is too big an event to keep the narrative from derailing from both narrative and psychological plausibility.