Here’s what I knew about Bullhead before Chris and I watched it last night:
- It was about a boxer
- It was about transporting illegal growth hormones
And that’s it. And though we see the main character Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) shadowboxing in his room a few times and he beats the shit out of several people, I don’t ever think it’s explicitly said that he’s a boxer. And while distributing illegal growth hormones for cattle is the backbone of the overall plot, those things are not what it’s about.
Boxing and violence in general make me nervous, especially when the perpetrator seems to be uncontrollable, as Jacky does. For the first maybe 30 minutes of the movie, I was a little bored. After we started it, I realized I didn’t really have a huge interest in watching a giant guy beat people up without remorse.
And then without warning, the film goes back in time 20 years and we see what started Jacky’s descent into overcompensating his masculinity and shooting up illegal steroids: an attack by a teenager when he was a young boy that left him without his testicles. Because he had not hit puberty yet, the doctor instructs his parents that he’ll need to be injected with testosterone to have “normal” male sex characteristics. To all of this, his mother asks, “Will he be gay?”
And that’s really what’s at the core of this movie: what does it mean to be a man? One of the other main characters, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) is a long-lost childhood friend of Jacky’s who was there during the attack and pops up again in Jacky’s adult life. Diederik’s father forbade him from testifying against the teenager who attacked Jacky, leading Jacky’s father to turn Diederik’s father in to the cops for illegal hormone use. And now, as an adult, Diederik is a gay man trying to atone for the injustice he feels he was a part of as a child and for his father’s cowardice by becoming a police informant to bring down rings of illegal hormone distribution. Diederik believes his father was a coward. Was he a real man? He felt Deiderik’s testimony would jeopardize his family and leave his wife and children to fend for themselves. Was he a coward or a protector? Jacky’s father preserves himself and sacrifices another young boy’s father for the sake of revenge. Was he a coward himself or just a vengeful father with nowhere to turn? Diederik is a semi-closeted gay man who, by trying to help what he perceives to be the greater good, usually ends up making things worse. Is he a snitch or just thinking of the big picture in wanting to rid Belgium of this underground crime?
And of course that leads us to Jacky, the main character, the bullhead himself. He doesn’t have testicles, he can’t have children, he doesn’t have a wife. Is he even a man? He’s overly masculine in physique but lay in his bathtub with the shower raining down on him, presumably to soothe his own depression. He’s haunted by images and memories of the attack that he didn’t do anything to deserve as a young child. He stalks a woman from his past to the point that she calls the police on him, but only because he has no idea how to express tenderness. Is he more of a man that Diederik because he’s heterosexual? Or is Diederik more of a man because he has testicles?
To me, the bottom line of this movie, is that the only thing that makes a man is himself. That and violence only ultimately leads to more violence.
It was nice to finally see this movie, as I had been wanting to ever since I saw the trailer however many years ago. The cinematography, character development, and story were the main characteristics that made this movie one of the best I have seen in a while. In many ways this movie felt like the mature older brother of Bronson (2008), in that you are fully on the side of the brutally masculine protagonist even when they may have gotten themselves into some unfortunate situations. Where Bronson is quite humorous, Bullhead, while occasionally funny, has you horrified where the story might go.
The two main actors in the film, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeroen Perceval could not have given a more convincing portrayal of their on screen characters. After you see this movie definitely google Schoenaerts and see what he looks like in real life. It’s pretty insane how different he is. Again, I can easily see Schoenaerts as the new Tom Hardy. I hope this movie has launched his career in a positive direction because he absolutely deserves to be in more award-worthy movies.
This movie was everything I had hoped it would be and more in the variety and amount of emotions it put me through. I would easily recommend it for anyone interested in film and I cannot wait too see more of Schoenaerts as well as Michael R. Roskam, the director.