HANNAH QUINN explains why we should all see this “hauntingly, bleakly beautiful” thriller.

bullhead hannah quinn Matthias Schoenaerts Michaël R. Roskam

Bullhead is unremittingly grim, sad and horrifying. The lead character smiles once, a tiny flicker of a grin when he is drunk and angry. But it is, unequivocally, a brilliant piece of cinema. It is that rare thing: a thriller which does not glamourise violence; a thriller in which the characters and their lives are more important than the suspense. And yet the suspense is there; slowed, perhaps, with flashbacks, but quietly building up, until almost without realising it I was holding my breath at the end.

Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature film is hard to classify. I’ve called it a thriller, but that seems oddly dismissive. It is hauntingly, bleakly beautiful and at times difficult to watch. The plot revolves around the ‘hormone mafia’; a group of farmers and meat suppliers injecting their cattle with illegal hormones to fatten them up. A policeman investigating the case is murdered, and the whole chain begins to unravel, with the police circling closer and closer. This is a film in which every action has far-reaching consequences.


The central character, Jacky Vanmarsenille, is the titular Bullhead, bulked up on steroids with an uncontrollable temper – the parallels between him and his cattle are clear, but nicely understated.  He is violent, prejudiced, and obsessive, but also lonely and vulnerable. While the film begins as a standard, if stylish, thriller, it is when we find out more about the tragic events of Jacky’s childhood that everything starts coming together (for the audience, at least: for the characters everything is only ever falling apart).

Matthias Schoenaerts is absolutely stunning as Jacky. To say he carried the film would be an insult to everything else that was brilliant about it, but it’s tempting, if only to emphasise how fantastic he was. For a start, the sheer physicality of his performance is incredible. While he bulked up considerably to play the role, it’s not so much his size but the way he moves that exudes a terrifying strength. The true strength of his performance though, is the way he combines an intense vulnerability with aggression. Flashbacks of Jacky’s childhood are used to brilliant effect, and it’s possible to see an element of that childlike uncertainty in Schoenaerts’ performance.

Though there is a lot of violence in the film, Roskam just about manages to avoid making it gratuitous: with a central character like Jacky, it all seems character-driven. In the end, the violence isn’t even the most difficult thing to watch: I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a scene in a nightclub which practically had me gnawing at my fist in its awkwardness.

Jacky may not be an easy character to like, but he is totally fascinating and Roskam constantly forces us to question our reaction to him. I still don’t know whether I thought Jacky was likeable, or pitiable, or frightening, or all three. What I do know is that this was one of the most captivating experiences I’ve had in the cinema for a long time. As thrillers go, they don’t come more stylish and thoughtful than this.