"Bullhead" intrigues with interweaving plots, compelling main character

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Review

To physically prepare for his role in “Bullhead,” star Matthias Schoenaerts spent over a year bodybuilding and gained 60 pounds. (Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films)

When “Bullhead” premiered at Fantastic Fest in September, Oscar buzz at the festival revolved around Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter.” Even as those two films receded into the background of the Oscar race, “Bullhead” picked up speed, and Drafthouse Films made a very smart move in picking up the eventual Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee after its premiere.

The hulking, frightening Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a cattle farmer tempted with the prospect of making a deal with a notorious beef trader. However, Jacky has a history with Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who is his connection to the beef trader, and it turns out Diederik isn’t what he seems to be.

From the beginning, “Bullhead” throws audiences into a densely plotted, expertly realized criminal underworld and poses questions about its characters, their lives and the morally destitute activities they’ve embroiled themselves in. Watching “Bullhead” slowly and deliberately parcel out the answers to these questions (some more compelling than others) makes for a consistently interesting, if occasionally off-putting, experience.

Schoenaerts dominates the film from the start. His Jacky is a terrifying yet sympathetic character. Jacky is a massive barrel of barely contained rage and frustration, and as engaging as the criminal machinations of “Bullhead” are, the film is at its most interesting when Jacky is simply navigating the world around him. These scenes, especially a few moments in which Jacky bonds with a pretty perfume saleswoman (Jeanne Dandoy), delve into the grotesqueries of his past in a few beautifully composed, disturbing sequences.

Although writer-director Michael Roskam makes his feature debut with “Bullhead,” the film is structured and directed with masterful grace and restraint. Roskam never lets the film’s many interweaving plot lines overwhelm him. He questions the nature of masculinity, and his characters obsess over the tires on their cars, the quality of their beef and, of course, sex.

It’s certainly exciting to see a promising new director enter the film scene, and Roskam is a rising talent to watch, but savvy cinema-goers should also keep their eyes open for Schoenaerts in the future — and not just because he looks so dangerous. “Bullhead” works as a crime drama, a stunted coming-of-age story and even a bizarre, dysfunctional romance, but when Schoenaerts’ monstrous Jacky takes center stage, the film operates on a different level altogether.

Viewers eager to make their next unexpected discovery should take note, because “Bullhead” is a film that stubbornly sticks in your memory, both for its lush, stark direction and captivating lead performance.