How far into our lives should we carry tragedies of youth?
What if there was real danger involved? And real violence? At what point does wariness, precaution — even mistrust — cease to be a survival adaptation? When does it become a new sort of danger?
These are all questions that first-time director Michael Roskam asks in Bullhead, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the Oscars (Dutch and French). The answers Roskam finds are as powerful, flawed and ultimately tragic as his steroid-addled hero.
When Jacky Vanmarsenille (Mattias Schoenaerts) was a kid — young, not quite in the throws of pubescence, but curious about it — something pretty awful happened to him. Something violent. Something that leaves him, hormonally, with the body chemistry of a 10-year-old.
Doctors tell his parents he needs testosterone injections to keep developing, but his father, a rancher who shoots his cows full of all sorts of hormones, refuses to pump his son with them.
At some point, Jacky takes it upon himself, shooting himself up with countless different anabolic testosterones. After each session, he staggers around his bathroom, shadowboxing the air. When we first see Jacky, in fact, he’s so thick with that fatty body-builder muscle that it’s hard to imagine the scrawny 10-year-old he once was, unable to defend himself.
Exactly why Jacky takes things to these extremes isn’t clear. It probably has something to do with fear — with wanting to be the biggest guy in any room. It definitely, though, has to do with love, and how the yearnings he has in his mind — for one particular woman — don’t and can’t have physical counterparts.
But even if he could physically act on his feelings, there would still be mental impediments. The steroids make Jacky so easily agitated, that any emotionally charged moment — whether that emotion is nervousness or love or lust or rage — causes him to either shut down or lash out.
Jacky is the head of the family business, but he plays the tough in meetings, letting others speak for him. The cattle-hormone trade is still a going concern. During a deal with local gangsters, he senses bad business, but he can’t communicate it. He dashes into the bathroom and has a freak-out. This is a startling divergence from his childhood, where he is a kind, thoughtful and talented kid.
There is a love story within Bullhead, and a crime story, and at the center of both is Jacky, unable to fully participate in either.
The film is not easy to watch at times, and the final payoff is both exactly what the audience has been expecting to happen and exactly what we hoped wouldn’t. There is no Hollywood arc here.
There are powerful ideas at play, though, and as Jacky’s yearning and violence reach a crescendo, the film becomes an allegory for the things we do to ourselves to feel normal, when perhaps what we should be doing is accepting our own particular sort of broken.
As that sort of story, Bullhead leaves a pit in the stomach, and not just from all the tainted beef.