Bullheadrecommended viewing

I haven't got what I'm supposed to have.
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Michael R. Roskam
Starring: 
Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian
The Setup: 
A tragedy unfolds amidst the Belgian hormone mafia.
Discussion: 

This was Belgium's entry for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and since it's a crime story centered on a guy who is totally jacked up on steroids intended for cattle, me and my friend thought it would be pretty interesting. It was, but it's also one of those movies that has a twist that defines the entire movie, making it impossible to discuss what it's really about without giving it away. So we'll go for a while and then I'll warn you when spoilers are going to happen.

We open with a monologue essentially saying that whatever happens, you're fucked. We are in a small town near the Belgian language border. You have to pay attention during some scenes to realize that the people are speaking two different languages. We meet our hero, Jacky, a big, sensitive goon of a man, who comes over to intimidate a distant relative into selling cows where he says. Apparently in Belgium there is an insidious mafia that deals in illegal hormones and controls the buying and selling of cattle and meat. We soon learn that Jacky is injecting himself with all sorts of steroids intended for cattle, making him huge and muscular. But the movie, being a serious art film, skimps on the shirtless scenes we want and perhaps even need.

We then start laying out a number of other characters. The are various mafia bigs, making deals, and bringing in an associate Jacky seems to know from his past, Deiderik. We learn that Deiderik is an informer in the employ of Eva, police detective, secretly investigating everyone involved. Deiderik, we soon learn, happens to be gay. One of the mafia guys drops a car off at these two mechanics, asking them to make it disappear. They find a bullet hole, and see a news report about a murdered police operative, and know that the car was involved--and can only spell trouble for them.

So then we flash back and learn something that gives a new meaning to everything we've seen, and will inform all of these characters and what happens going forward, giving a deep personal and psychological bent to everything that unfolds, and we're going to talk about it now, so if of don't want to know, please skip past where the spoilers end.

SPOILERS > > >
So twenty years ago, it turns out that Jacky and Deiderik were best friends. Jacky's dad dealt with these farmers and mafia members, bringing the boys along. There Jacky was taken with comely daughter Lucia, who has an evil and hopped-up brother Bruno, who tries to prostitute her. Dad leaves, but the boys ride their bikes back to see the lovely Lucia, and get caught by psychotic Bruno. He catches Jacky, forces him down, and you think they're going to rape him, but actually it's worse. Bruno takes two rocks and smashes Jacky's testicles to pulp. You can tell its bad when even Bruno's friends run off, appalled. Deiderik abandons his friend and leaves him there. When their parents find out, Deiderik's father forbids him from saying anything, since the other farmers are so powerful in the mafia. Jacky is forced to begin injecting testosterone, or he'll never develop into a man, as he is just then pubescent.

In the present, Jacky goes into a store a meets a pretty salesgirl, who we soon realize is Lucia. He starts gently courting and perhaps borderline stalking her, and she is soon interested. We later learn that Bruno is barely conscious in a nursing home, indicating that he really was crazy back in the day, and now is so crazy that revenge would be a pointless endeavor. She puts together who Jacky is, but also finds out that he beat a male rival into a coma (he has these steroid-induced rages) and in the final moments, as the police are closing in, he escapes to her, but by that time she is afraid of him, and the tension becomes whether he'll be able to get through to her before he is caught.

So before we leave the spoilers, let's talk about the themes. You have a guy with no testicles and presumably no ability to make male hormones or father children, who in compensation grows into a huge, hulking, outwardly macho and potent guy. His friend Deiderik ran away and wasn't allowed to testify for Jacky is now an informant, telling on people for a living. His friend lost his manhood, and Deiderik is gay and seeks a big man just like Jacky. And then there's the hugely bulked-up cattle, which, like Jacky himself, are pawns in a big scheme they have no way out of.
< < < SPOILERS END

So the movie is very complex, with a great many secondary characters with criss-crossing plans and motivations, but one is never confused about who is who and what's happening (as opposed to The Snowtown Murders, in which one is so confused you just eventually give up on the movie). As it continues, you can see that the bulk of the movie is setting up at least six different threads of narrative that are all going to intersect at the end. As we reach that end, the narrative becomes ever-more tragic, as we realize that Jacky isn't really a major player in any of the big crimes, but is inextricably bound up in them, and may end up the fall guy. We also learn more about Jacky's personal dreams, and one of them comes tantalizingly close in the final, emotional moments.

So the film builds up to a big, operatic climax, and it works, it's just that... given all the build-up, one might have expected a bit more. As it continues, you start to realize that the entire film is building up for all of it to explode at the climax, but ultimately the explosion is quite contained and while quite good, maybe not big enough to match all the lengthy build-up. But this is a small quibble. This is a good, rich movie which takes the unusual tack of laying out a bunch of character intersections, then energizes it all with a personal revelation of what hidden factors are behind it all. Good, rich and tragic, but still only for those who like small, intimate foreign films.

Should you watch it: 

If you're into well-done, moving and unusual smallish foreign films.