Bullhead happens in a foreign place for most of us. Set against the backdrop of agrarian Flanders and its seamy underbelly*, it follows a small-time beef farmer who--along with his also crooked cohorts--is working on closing a deal with a notorious beef trader of the sketchy and criminal variety.
This is the set-up, but it is merely a metaphorically charged world to set the story of Jacky Vanmarsenille into motion. First-time feature-length writer/director Michael R. Roskam takes the deliberate route in presenting Jacky's tale, dropping small morsel after small morsel of information about the quiet but beastly protagonist. From the get-go, a mystery is built around Jacky. Little by little that mystery is revealed. His social timidness contrasts his physicality beautifully. His similarity to the cattle he's raising is rich with subtext. There is a poignancy to his devolution into the beasts he raises, and this relationship keeps the audience rapt with curiosity.
Despite its richness in metaphor and allegory, Bullhead does come perilously close to going over the line from contemplative to slow. While hesitant to place blame whilst watching with engorged bladder, one could question whether or not a more savage cut could have been performed in the editing room. Its pacing wasn't intolerable, but a bit probably could have been trimmed.
Regardless, Bullhead, a title that at least in part has to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, is a compelling story, and its hero is an interesting one. Matthias Schoenaerts's turn as Jacky is a heavily slanted to the non-verbal, allowing his expressive face (and the resultant subconscious of the audience) to do the talking. Roskam's eye shows clearly his background in painting, and the film is strong in spite of its deliberateness.