Just when you think every possible variation on the mafia movie has been spun, along comes "Bullhead."
This was Belgium'sofficial Academy Award entry in the foreign-language slot, and (a bit dubiously) one of the five eventual 2011 foreign-language nominees. It's set among ruthless individuals in the Flemish bovine hormone mafia underworld. Pungent milieu; moderately compelling results.
Debut feature director Michael R. Roskam's story of a damaged brute -- a hunky bucket of pathos of the sort preferred by Tennessee Williams -- provides its ensemble plenty to chew on. Jacky, given a solid core of inchoate rage by heavy-lidded Matthias Schoenaerts, works on his uncle's cattle farm in Limburg, Belgium. We first see him naked, injecting himself with what appears to be testosterone. A while later, in a "20 years earlier" flashback, "Bullhead" reveals the gruesomely violent act inflicted on Jacky as a youngster, leaving him an embittered animal, a symbolic link to the hormone-addled specimens all around him.
A shady veterinarian urges Jacky's family to supply their beef to a new client, a murderous hormone trafficker. One of the trafficker's minions knows Jacky from the old days, and played a part (or rather, failed to) in Jacky's life-defining incident. "Bullhead" proceeds as a cat, mouse and cattle game, as one set of business concerns squares off against another. Police chase down their leads, in and out of the red-light districts along the highway, among other locales. Jacky's attempts to ingratiate himself with the girl who got away, another piece of this crowded narrative, puts the audience squarely on Jacky's side, though we know where he's headed from the first fatalistic voice-over.
Schoenaerts is often affecting and just as often scarily intense. The film's intensity, by contrast, beams on and off. But some of the throwaway lines linger like the odor of manure, as when one character touts the use of a new, faster-acting growth supplement. "They don't even have this in the Hormonic States of America," he says, dryly.