Sam Louwyck as Marc De Kuyper in a scene from the Belgium film "Bullhead" in this undated handout photo. The film was nominated for best foreign film for the 84th Academy Awards, announced January 24, 2012. The Oscars will be presented February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California. REUTERS/Drafthouse Films/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Rundskop (Bullhead)

DIRECTOR: Michael R Roskam

CAST: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeanne Dandoy, Jeroen Perceval|CLASSIFICATION: TBA

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

RATING: ****

Bullhead, the Academy Award-nominated foreign-language film from Belgium, is a dark, haunting and wholly original exploration of what it means to be a man.

Writer-director Michael R Roskam’s auspicious feature film debut initially looks like a crime thriller, full of shady figures making secret night-time deals, with a ten-sion and a seamy, muted colour palette reminiscent of David Fincher.

But eventually it reveals itself to be a character drama about the way the past shapes us and our inability to escape it, no matter how convincingly we believe we’ve transformed ourselves.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives a fierce and frightening turn as Jacky, a steroid-addicted cattle rancher who works out an arrangement with some meat-trading Flemish mobsters, only to try to back out when an inves-tigating federal agent is gunned down.

This sequence of events forces him to revisit a horrific incident from his childhood 20 years ago, as well as the people who were crucial to that pivotal moment.

Schoenaerts turns Jacky into a hulking beast given to volatile fits of rage; the performance calls to mind Tom Hardy’s startling, muscular work in his own breakthrough film, 2009’s Bronson.

The sight of Jacky curled in the foetal position in his sparse bathroom or shadow boxing in silhouette in front of a window after he’s just in-jected himself with hormones gets a little repetitive, but it’s always dramatically shot.

These moments also serve as a window to Jacky’s true self. His jittery attempts to reconnect with his boyhood crush, a vibrant woman named Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), who now runs a perfume shop in the French-speaking part of the country, are heartbreaking because he’s so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. He makes you feel the loneliness beneath his sad eyes and massive frame, his awkwardness and a desperate need to be loved.

Lucia is also a key figure in the event that damaged him as a boy. The other is Diederik (a creepy Jeroen Perceval), who was his best friend back then but now works for the mob – although as Bullhead reveals, alliances are fluid things and no one is to be trusted in a world where everyone is looking out for himself. This is also true of a couple of bumbling, French-speaking mechanics, who ostensibly are introduced to provide comic relief but feel a bit out of place.

But Bullhead does keep you guessing by lulling you in with a quiet suspense, which makes the punctuations of violence – some of which are quite brutal – seem like even more of a shock.

Jacky warns us in voice-over off the top that we’re all screwed (although he uses a more explicit word that we can’t repeat here). That doesn’t make the film’s twists and turns, or its powerful conclusion, any easier to predict – or forget. - ap

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