The beginning of Raging Bull finds Jake LaMotta, the former middleweight champion played by Robert De Niro, a sad shadow of his former self — a paunchy middle-aged washout reduced to converting his legacy in the ring to a stilted lounge act.
Yet those old rituals persist backstage, when he's alone with his demons and anxiously rehearsing his jabs for the big show. "Just give me a stage/where this bull here can rage," says LaMotta. Though robbed of his dignity and his manhood, he keeps on punching.
There's a lot of Jake LaMotta in Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), the juiced-up cattle farmer at the center of Bullhead, a slow-burning Belgian thriller that scored an unlikely but largely deserved Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Here, too, we see a man carrying out his own behind-the-scenes rituals, pacing and shadowboxing at home as he injects a battery of testosterone and growth hormone shots into his wiry frame.
Writer-director Michael K. Roskam takes his time in revealing why Jacky needs to shoot up, but that LaMotta restlessness is unmistakable —this bull here can rage.
Inspired by the mid-'90s murder of a Belgian veterinarian who continued to check cattle for illegal substances, despite threats by the so-called hormone mafia, Bullhead initially seems like a rural noir of the Winter's Bone variety. In the first scene, Jacky comes across as a common thug, bullying an aging cattle farmer into dealing exclusively with his family — or else having his body fed through the business end of a combine. But he's really a bit player in a much larger and more sinister subculture, and he comes to seem less vicious enforcer than hapless victim.
In that sense and others, Bullhead quietly subverts expectation. A GoodFellas set among the hormone mafia may not sound like a great movie, but Roskam subtly steers it toward intense and agonizing character study, with the bovine-supplement angle raising the stakes and dredging up the past.
When his veterinarian partner (Frank Lammers) tries to persuade him to do business with a shady meat dealer named De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), Jacky balks over concerns that De Kuyper may be responsible for murdering an investigator. His worries deepen when he discovers that his counterpart on De Kuyper's side is his former friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) — who failed to intervene in the incident that destroyed his life.
As Diederik re-emerges on the scene, Bullhead opens up a Pandora's box of emotions for Jacky, who has worked hard to submerge a past that haunts him every day. Flashing back to Jacky's adolescence, Roskam deftly sketches in his friendship with Diederik, his ill-advised pining for the local bully's sister, and, finally, the moment he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jacky's predicaments, past and present, are common among noir anti-heroes: No matter how strong they are, they're at the mercy of forces larger than themselves.
Once Bullhead starts drifting more frequently into the past, Roskam almost seems to lose interest in the present, which costs him a more propulsive depiction of the hormone mafia and its role in cop murder and regional chicanery.
But the focus on Jacky's troubled conscience has its own share of rewards, not least Schoenaerts' exceptional performance as a man whose body can seem at times like a wrecking ball and at others like a shell of brittle porcelain. Roskam draws a simple, elegant connection between the injections that bring the cattle to maturity in eight weeks instead of 10 and those that course through Jacky: These are beasts being fattened for the slaughter.