Director: Michael R Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Barbara Sarafian. Belgium. 2h 8m.
There is something majestically beautiful about Roskam’s savage mafia drama. That sees a man fight against his own nature using the same tools that he applies to nature for his own gains. Usually Belgium is seen as a boring country where nothing really exciting happens, but even with the crime connections in this film, they aren’t peddling class a drugs or trafficking humans, nothing that dangerous or “glamorous” instead this mafioso gang are pedding steroid laden beef, typical farmer stuff but filled with meaty treats.
In north east Belgium in a small city of Sint-Truiden, a young cattle farmer, Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts) spends his days injecting steroids and raising beef, but secretly the family business has been heavily involved with the mafia, dealing in illegal hormones and controlling the cattle and meat trade. Jacky generally keeps his head down, but due to his addiction he’s super aggressive and plays his role in intimidating other cattle workers.
When a stolen car is returned to some local mechanics with a bullet hole around the time when a detective has been shot and killed, suspicions are high, but Jacky has his own problems when ghosts from his troubled past all seem to come running into his future, his vet organises a meeting with a Mafia boss, Marc, but his associate is an old friend, Diederik (Perceval) who was close friends with Jacky when he has a life changing encounter with a bully, then he has a run in with the stunning Lucia, a girl who used to get him all worked up at a boy, and who happened to be the sister of the bully who.. Basically erased his junk.
The ever growing difficult problems with the crime families of Belgium and the haunting memories of the past that has resurfaced have the young agressive farmer in a twist, who would have thought that Flanders could be so exciting!!?
On the surface the movie is an elaborate crime story that gets heavily intertwined with lots of deeply personal stories, which can be perplexing at times but it’s the characters that really capture the audience and make the movie that touch more unique and powerful.
Schoenaerts really sets this film alive, I saw this before he really became a full on pin up and it’s easy to see his magnetism, Roskam seems to insist on making his large muscular frame and persona mimic that of the cattle he’s injecting with the same steroids, but he’s so complex and manages to express all of the deep emotional dead ends that he runs into. The formidable cinematography, by Nicolas Karakatsanis, envelops us in an ever-darkening world.
Sometimes in a man’s life stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it. Not to anyone, not even to themselves. Not in their head and not out loud. Not a fucking word. Cos everything has somehow got stuck. There, deep in the fields, under the trees and the leaves, year after year. Then, suddenly it all comes back. Just like that, from one day to the next. No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure. You’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time. Fucked.
There are a few scenes where we can literally see the anger building up in Jacky, as if he’s forcing out each word, if the story was just about a man being eaten alive by chemical and displaying animalistic tendencies then it would still be a great film, for a while I found it more confusing adding in the complexity of the somewhat illegal beef trade but the film is partially based on the 1995 murder of government livestock inspector Karel van Noppen who was investigating the use of growth hormones and the rest was fictitious and it seems to pay a decent tribute. It’s easy to see how this boosted the career of Matthias Schoenaerts and it will be great to see him match this unusual but powerful performance especially the closing rage fueled event… absolutely chilling.
My whole life I’ve known nothing but animals… I’ve always felt just like these bulls here, never knowing what it’s like to protect someone. Calves, a herd, like a wife, children… Really having to protect them, cos you have to… cos it’s in your nature.
R: Racer and the Jailbird (2017), Dossier K (2009), The Drop (2014), Loft (2008)
L: A-Z of Belgium Cinema,