Matthias Schoenaerts, left, star of "Bullhead," and Michael… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
It might be wintry cold this time of year in Brussels, but on a recent February afternoon in Los Angeles, it was sunny, warm and near-perfect as Belgian writer-director Michaël R. Roskam and actor Matthias Schoenaerts sat at a table poolside at a Sunset Strip hotel, each laying into a plate of steak frites as women in swimsuits and the men who chase after them circulated nearby. It was more or less a scene straight from "Entourage," the fantasy version of itself Hollywood likes to export around the world.
What put the pair there is "Bullhead," a gripping crime story and character study set amid an unlikely underworld of farmers and gangsters, an underground mafia of hormone hustlers. The film, opening Friday in Los Angeles, is also nominated for the foreign-language film Academy Award.
If last year the Greek abstraction "Dogtooth" seemed a surprise inclusion among the nominees, this year it's the gritty, grim "Bullhead" that has raised a few eyebrows.
In the film, a cattleman named Jacky (Schoenaerts) alternates between a shy reticence and raging brutishness, his wild swings exacerbated by the hormones he injects into himself. At the same time, he is drawn deeper into a shady world where cattle are being illegally fattened and, because of a murder, investigators are closing in.
The unexpected reappearance of Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), a friend from childhood, causes Jacky to finally come to terms with a painful trauma he has long tried to suppress.
"Bullhead" had its premiere at last year's Berlin International Film Festival, where its positive reception brought Roskam to the attention of Hollywood agents. The movie opened in Belgium last February, where it was a local hit and held such American films as "Black Swan," "True Grit" and "127 Hours" from the No. 1 slot at the box office. After its American premiere in the fall as part of the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, where it won three prizes, it was picked up by the upstart distribution company Drafthouse Films.
Being named as Belgium's submission for the foreign-language Oscar was something of a shock, as it was widely assumed that "The Kid With a Bike," the latest film from international festival darlings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, would be the selection.
"We found out just a week before we went to Austin for Fantastic Fest that we were the Belgian entry," Roskam, 39, said. "There was a little bit of a buzz going on because we beat the Dardenne brothers. So suddenly everybody wanted to know: Who's the kid who beat 'The Kid'?"
Roskam, originally from the small town of Sint-Truiden, in the same region where "Bullhead" is set, first wanted to be a graphic novelist and trained as a painter before transitioning to filmmaking with a series of shorts. He loosely based his debut feature on a Belgian true-crime story from the late 1990s, when a veterinarian was murdered after looking into the illegal use of hormones to fatten livestock, with the news stories grabbing the attention of the nation.
Though farming is often thought of as a bucolic occupation, few other lines of work potentially involve as much mud and blood and killing as part of a day's work. It can be an actual dirty business.
"It was like the country woke up; some of our farmers are actually gangsters," Roskam said. "And then you realize as a filmmaker you have a very exotic and interesting world to explore.
"I'm not trying to blame the food industry or pretend to tell the truth. I wasn't interested in making a reconstruction of the facts. I just wanted to tell a good tragedy about the loss of innocence, the fight against destiny and the powerlessness of things, redemption and revenge. Big themes. And I know the best way to tell those stories is inside a crime story, a film noir for the 21st century."
Having worked with Schoenaerts on one of his short films, Roskam wrote the part of Jacky with the actor in mind. It was about a year before shooting began that Schoenaerts began training in earnest for the part. Ultimately, he put on about 60 pounds and wore a prosthetic nose to flatten his features into a more bull-like appearance.
Schoenaerts says he was drawn to the contradictions of the character, a man who seems to be, by turns, an underworld savant intuitively making his way or relatively stunted and dim.
"There's his physically intimidating appearance, but there's also a very vulnerable side about him," he said. "And that contrast, that ambiguous aspect, I immediately fell in love with it. "
He rejects the notion that Jacky is dumb, however. "He's a socially handicapped person, and he's not an intellectual. But to say he's stupid would to me be absolutely wrong. I consider him a very sensitive, emotionally intelligent person, very perceptive."