The Belgian crime drama Bullhead, among this year's foreign film Oscar nominees, is as clumsy and misshapen as its unfortunate protagonist, a bulked-up cattle farmer and gangster named Jacky Vanmarsenille. He tells us in a voice-over that opens the film that he's damned. Actually, he says "fucked." And he's not kidding.
You may have paused over the words "cattle farmer" and "gangster." That's not a mistake, and it's one of the intriguing elements of this film, which presents a quirky portrait of a small country that remains an enigma to many of us. Jacky's farm, which he and his brother operate for their aging parents, is part of a beef combine that dopes cattle with illicit growth hormones to shave off a few precious weeks until slaughter, in violation of European Union laws. (American food reformers will wince when the farmers cackle over one particular growth hormone that's so potent it's even illegal in the U.S.)
This movie has a plot involving a murdered police investigator and tensions between Jacky's crowd and another group of gangster-businessmen. There's a police informer, some ineptly camouflaged evidence, some crisscrossing of linguistic and cultural boundaries (Belgian, Dutch, French and Walloon) and so forth. But the particulars aren't as engrossing as we'd like them to be, and the large cast of characters is hard to keep track of (perhaps this would be a good premise for a TV series).
What makes the story work is the overwhelming tragedy of Jacky's life. In a ghastly flashback, we witness an act that is nauseating in its violence. Fair warning: My reaction was something on the order of "no-no-God-no-Jesus-make-it-stop." After this incident, Jacky's life is a long, mournful trudge up Calvary. By the time we meet him as an adult, he's a bulked-up slab of muscle with a dangerous temperament to match. His physique is the result of his reckless consumption of testosterone and growth hormones in his effort to recover from the violence he suffered as a child.
Jacky is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks as if he were recruited from a mixed martial arts gym but in fact is a trained actor who spent two years pumping iron in preparation for the role. But his Jacky isn't really a feat of acting. It's more like lurching, and, as it's intended to be, it's sad to watch. If anything, Schoenaerts offers a modern take on Boris Karloff's tender monster in Frankenstein, a beast who wants to feel and love but is denied the opportunity to do so.
For a very different kind of bestiality (think weasel, perhaps, or a turkey drowning in a rainstorm), Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as Mickey V. Prohaska, a skeevy insurance salesman who's way over his head in Thin Ice, a new comic caper from Jill and Karen Sprecher. Set during a Kenosha, Wisc., winter, the film carries too-obvious influences, starting with Fargo and including A Simple Plan, Glengarry Glen Ross and just about any con film you can think of. Kinnear's relentlessly inept salesman provides Thin Ice with much of its charm, but at about the hour mark, the glibness has worn thin and the talented side players, including Billy Crudup, Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, have run out of notes. When the revelations come, you'll be forgiven for thinking you've seen this movie before, because you have.