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Bullhead: movie review

The Belgian movie ‘Bullhead’ takes a quirky premise and turns it into a high-stakes thriller.

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Matthias Schoenaerts as cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille in ‘Bullhead.’

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"Bullhead," which lost out this year to "A Separation" in the foreign film Oscar category, is a curious amalgam of pulp theatrics and psychological drama. Fortunately, the drama wins out much of the time.

The story takes off from a 1990s murder of a Belgian veterinarian who, despite repeated intimidation from criminal gangs, continued to investigate the use of illegal growth hormone on cattle.

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The so-called hormone mafia may seem like an unlikely, even risible, subject for a movie, but first-time writer-director Michael Roskam makes it very clear that the stakes are as high here as in any other form of big-ticket crime. Still, I was not overly interested in yet another crime movie, from Belgium or anywhere else, that simply retreads the same pulp paces.

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"Bullhead" periodically falls into that rut, but what saves it is the performance of its lead actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, who is a kind of human bull. At least he seems so at first. His Jacky works on the family cattle farm and is dead set against an illegal deal with a local meat tycoon (Sam Louwyck) for the very good reason that the tycoon is being investigated by the police for murder.

Jacky is bulked up by the testosterone shots he regularly injects, and when the reasons for this emerge, he takes on the contours of a tragic figure right out of a classic film noir. Schoenaerts has the gift of being able to make inarticulateness expressive. Perhaps this is why, in moments, he seems to recall Brando and Dean. He's not in their stratosphere, and "Bullhead" certainly isn't, but for American audiences the film signals the arrival of a powerful star actor. Grade: B (Rated R for some strong violence, language, and sexual content.)