In Belgian Oscar-Nominee ‘Bullhead,’ Both the Cattle and the Cowman Are Full of Steroids

Debut film “Bullhead” from Michael R. Roskam depicts adult criminals still grappling with childhood traumas. It’s a Best Foreign Film nominee from Belgium

If you think all Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees are whispery meditations on the nature of mortality or earnest dramas set against a conflict between two rubble-strewn countries, rest assured that the Belgian import “Bullhead” falls in neither category.

A gritty crime drama set against the world of cattle ranching and the country’s “hormone mafia,” the film uses the structure of a crime drama to flesh out some interesting, tortured, multi-dimensional characters — until the end, anyway, when the cops-and-robbers stuff comes roaring back to take over the plotline.

Up until that point, however, “Bullhead” offers plenty of surprises and a handful of riveting performances from a cast of Belgian actors who deserve to become familiar faces on the international scene.

Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a second-generation cattle man, one who’s been injecting his cows with growth hormones (legal in the U.S., illegal in Belgium) since he was a child. Back at home, Jacky’s got a fridge full of steroids that he injects into himself, leading to an impressively bulked-up physique and fits of air-punching rage.

Lest you assume that writer-director Michael R. Roskam (making his feature debut) is making an obvious parallel between the two, “Bullhead” takes us back to Jacky’s childhood and the horrifying incident that leads to his present-day juicing. And Jacky’s not the only one scarred by that long-gone trauma — his cousin and one-time best friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) remains affected by it as well.

The film works best as it lets us into the characters’ heads, from Jacky’s day-to-day coping mechanisms and clumsy attempts at courtship with his childhood crush Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), now the owner of a perfume boutique, to Diederik’s awkward flirtation with a male cop whom he’s providing with information as part of a police sting on the hormone smugglers.

Even though the crime story (there’s an ongoing subplot about the murder of a cop) winds up overwhelming the proceedings, it’s the characters that make “Bullhead” so powerful and so unique. Roskam clearly trusts his audience to follow along, giving us subtle clues and unspoken sentiments without sharply underlining everything or connecting the dots for people who haven’t been paying attention.

The trio of leads are thoroughly captivating, particularly Schoenaerts, who’s got one of the most arresting physiognomies since Tom Hardy’s breakout role in “Bronson.” Even before Jacky speaks, his face and his body are already telling us a story. It’s a heartbreaking performance that puts the actor (who apparently put on 60 pounds to play the role) firmly in the one-to-watch category.

Roskam belongs there as well. “Bullhead” may have its minor flaws, but the details — from a mob sit-down at a racetrack to the regional prejudices between Flemish and Walloon criminals — all seem just right. Even if Roskam leaves the Oscars empty-handed, this first-time filmmaker has crafted an impressive calling card.