Echoing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Bullhead’s Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a soft-spoken yet intimidating specimen of masculinity. A bodybuilding-obsessed cow farmer embroiled in the Belgian pharmaceutical underworld, Jacky daily injects himself and his livestock with illegal growth hormones until they both become unrecognizable yet desirable beasts. Rather than frequent the love hotels like his underworld cohorts, however, Jacky instead seeks perpetual isolation. Lengthy bouts of shadowboxing follow Jacky’s treatments, either an endless attempt to fight off some invisible demon or a desperate testosterone-laden attempt to seek validation from the same overpowering force. Jacky’s biggest test of strength comes when a life-changing mob deal reunites Jacky with his long-absent childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), someone who not only knows the secrets of Jacky’s murky past, but whose connections with the Belgian Police could put him and his partners behind bars.
Granted, most elements of Bullhead paint the film as some Flemish-versed ape of classic crime films. However, writer/director Michael Roskam avoids falling victim to familiarity by sifting through the grime of his vice-ridden, chemically-charged characters to explore the inseparable link between the passions that drive them and the consequences that await them.
While most would envy his gargantuan brawn, Jacky himself is endlessly tormented by his own crippling lack of masculinity. In the film’s first display of tragic craftsmanship, a traumatic incident involving a childhood crush destroys Jacky’s innocence while leaving him permanently physically “innocent.” Jacky’s cruel fate is made even worse by virtue of occurring without consequence; there is no closure for him, no prosecution of those responsible. All that remains is the biggest consequence of all — Jacky is riddled with emotions and desires, but he’s forever unable to act on them. His business partners, friends, even his less-domineering brother have all found love and started families of their own, while Jacky remains frustratingly alone. He tries to pursue Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), the same crush from his childhood; however, Jacky’s attempts are feeble and self-destructive, foiled by the intoxicating reactions between copious amounts of cow steroids and other sorts of liquid courage. Despite all this, Jacky forges on, determined to win Lucia’s heart by getting bigger, stronger, by becoming the masculine ideal he believes all men are destined for except him. “I never knew what it was like to protect someone,” Jacky later shares with Diederik in a rare moment of self-expression. “I don’t have what should’ve been my nature.”
This same torturous existence also plagues Diederik, who kept silent about Jacky’s abuse at the behest of his meat-trading father, who thought any police attention would sour his developing connections with the hormone underworld. As the film progresses, we learn Diederik’s childhood regret fuels his fledgling career as a police informant, seeking to destroy the very industry that ruined his friendship with Jacky. Any attempt at second-guessing or backing out is foiled by the detectives who rely on Diederik’s crucial information, who promise the reward of sexual favors from an amorous cop or the threat of imprisonment on murder and conspiracy charges. Both Jacky and Diederik are driven by desires born out of the fates that were forced upon them as children, pasts they continue to escape as adults; plagued by personal and physical failure, they are driven to succeed or die.
Bullhead, however, begins with a fittingly bullish declaration of certainty: “Whatever you do, and whatever you think, one thing you can be sure of: you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week, and next year, until the end of time. Fucked.” Despite Jacky and Diederik’s lifelong attempts at redemption and closure, consequence always finds a way to keep satisfaction tantalizingly out of reach. Jacky’s determination to win Lucia’s affection leads him to reduce other suitors into vegetative comas, word of which inevitably comes back to Lucia. Likewise, Diederik’s attempts to shelter Jacky from police investigation backfire as connections arise between Jacky’s mob cohorts and the death of a local cop; as a result, Diederik raises suspicion on them both and foils his ploy at forgiveness from the friend he betrayed. The resulting surveillance at Jacky’s farm links Lucia’s innocent visit to Jacky to the investigation into the mob, placing all three characters on a collision course with fate. Much like how Jacky poisons his cows and himself with pharmaceuticals, every event and desire in the film is or will be poisoned by consequence. Jacky’s hunger to be with Lucia, Diederik’s craving for redemption: everything will be foiled. Each attempt at self-fulfillment merely sets up another domino that leads to the film’s devastating finale. Bullhead reveals that not only does fate revel in our attempts to avoid it, but it thrives upon them.
But in the full light of this grim inevitability, Jacky and Diederik decide to continue swimming upstream. Jacky knows he’s fucked, that he cannot hope to bring his want of a relationship with Lucia to the fruition he desperately envies in everyone else. That doesn’t stop him from pursuing her — on the contrary, it only encourages him to keep going. His attempts to build a connection with her inadvertently terrify her, but he won’t stop until he finally makes her understand his own terrors. In Diederik, his realization that he’s even more a pawn in the Police’s game between themselves and the mob drives him to throw caution to the wind, acting purely on instinct to earn Jacky’s forgiveness.
That recklessness lies at the beautiful heart of Bullhead’s violence — that while our desires bring about inevitable consequences, fate in turn is nothing without our desires. Bullhead is a torturous yet rewarding and elegant exploration of the indivisibility of passion and self-destruction, not just because of the tragedies that will inevitably befall its characters, but how completely dedicated Michael Roskam and company are to the futile optimism that lies at the heart of the tragic experience. Our hunger for the permanently unattainable may inevitably drive us to failure, but true beauty lies in how our fear of failure only keeps us hungrily forging on in search of fulfillment.