Matthias Schoenaerts did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jacky Vanmarsenille in Bullhead.
Matthias Schoenaerts is one of the most intriguing actors of his age group even though he is currently in a state of the in between in terms of his prominence. He at the very least has broken out internationally, aided no doubt by his unmatched ability with accents, the transformative quality of his performances, and his original leading performances in somewhat prominent foreign films. This includes the 2012 film Rust and Bone but started with his performance in this film. Funny enough, like his contemporary Tom Hardy's work in Bronson, Schoenaerts's first major leading turn came with a massive physical change as a musclebound man. As with Bronson, Jacky is not just fit but seems encased in himself. The opening scene of the film seems to suggest that the purpose of this bulk may be similair to that of Bronson's, as we go see Jacky intimidate a man for dealing with someone other than his own family. Obviously Jacky is an imposing figure to begin with his size and height, and Schoenaerts is appropriately menacing as he brings the needed ferocity to Jacky's hectoring of the man. Soon afterwards we see Jacky injecting himself with some sort of substance, it appears we're following a drug addled thug, but that is only a glance.
It soon becomes clear that it's not so simple and this is even before we learn anything from the film itself because of Schoenaerts's portrayal of Jacky. Schoenaerts portrays a constant discomfort in Jacky as though there is something wrong with his very being. Schoenaerts lumbers around as portrays this certain unease of a man who suffers even from such a simple act as walking. Schoenaerts presents a man who is fundamentally flawed in some way, there is damage in his soul. When Jacky is going about injecting himself, which turns out to be testosterone for the most part, there is a desperation in it. There is a pain in the very moment that Schoenaerts suggests though he never attaches this to say the pain of the needle. It is rather a desperation in the act, which is as though he is searching for some sort of reprieve of his current state through the injection which is never found. Schoenaerts creates even a sense that his muscles are some sort of personal armor to protect himself from this underlying trauma that constantly inflicts him, once again though Schoenaerts shows that this is a failed attempt as nothing can change his past.
That past is eventually revealed through a flashback. The flashback reveals that as a child Jacky's testicles where permanently destroyed by a mentally ill older boy, and his constant injections began as a child in order to allow normal male development. The damage of the event went past the injury as seen through Jacky's current state. After witnessing the event we are given a greater understanding of Jacky as a man and Schoenaerts's portrayal of him. Schoenaerts's work is outstanding the way that event seems ever a part of him. This is not only from the physical manner of the man. Schoenaerts is terrific as he represents also the history that followed. The history of being shunned in a way by others not knowing how to deal with what happened, but also from others mocking him for what happened. There is a barrier that Schoenaerts creates between Jacky and almost everyone he interacts. This is within the general situations where Schoenaerts always separates himself from the rest as Jacky rarely stays within another's presence, and almost never stares at them directly.
Schoenaerts's work is effortlessly compelling in the way he realize such complexity in Jacky, despite having only the rare spoken word. Schoenaerts creates understanding for the surface of the man, which is as the hulking thug. In the scenes where Jacky becomes violent there is never a satisfaction to it, but rather a sad resignation. Schoenaerts presents a man being the only thing that it seems life has allowed him to be in these moments, as he relies on defense mechanism of sorts. In his most vicious attacks Schoenaerts brings a learned quality to it, as though it is the only way he can react given his past. Again it is always blunt and to the point. There is one moment where one of his associates mocks him for what he lacks, and Jacky smashes the man's face. Schoenaerts brings no sadism in this instead rather portraying it as the only way Jacky can communicate. Schoenaerts shows the way he snaps into the role that he's established for himself, the only role he knows from a life experience of a constant isolation.
There are a few instances where Jacky falls out of that role though. In the scenes where we see Jacky work with his cattle, Schoenaerts brings a more outgoing quality within Jacky. There is finally a bit of comfort in Jacky's interactions, though they are only with animals who are being primed for slaughter to begin with. Schoenaerts portrays so wonderfully the man who could have been. Late in the film Jacky is helped by his old childhood friend, and Schoenaerts portrays this relationship a bit differently from the rest though not inconsistently. Schoenaerts's performance depicts a bit less of that inner intensity that goes hand in hand with his personal pain, as he effectively shows the way Jacky interacts with someone he knew well before the incident. He's not closed off in the same way here as well, though Schoenaerts still infuses some distance fitting their time apart yet creates a proper connection to allude to their history together.
The most powerful aspect to Schoenaerts's work comes in the scenes where Jacky attempts to create any sort of relationship with a perfume saleswoman Lucia, who also is the sister of the boy that had attacked Jacky so many years before. Schoenaerts is downright brilliant in the early interactions as he shows the difficulty in Jacky as he attempts to just ever so slightly break out of his shell. Schoenaerts is rather affecting in portraying this unusual shyness in Jacky as he tries to meet her later in a nightclub, and in his eyes you can see the way how he cannot get past the constrictions brought upon others as well as himself. When Jacky brutally beats another man who tried to pick up Lucia, Schoenaerts even makes this basically an act of despair as he just resorts to the only response he feel he has once again. The film ends with Jacky attempting one more time to really speak to Lucia, which is made difficult after she has discovered that he beat the other man to an inch of his life. Schoenaerts is absolutely heartbreaking in the scene. He has only a couple almost meaningless lines, yet all of the meaning of the meeting is in his face. Schoenaerts is devastating as he shows Jacky trying so hard to come out with the right words, yet cannot bring them to his mouth. Every word and every emotion can be seen in Schoenaerts's haggard expression, but unfortunately Jacky still cannot escape himself failing to connect Lucia before falling into a final depressed rage. This is yet another amazing minimalist performance from 2011. I remained invested in Jacky's story even when the film wavered a bit, as Schoenaertes crafted such a consistently fascinating character who in the wrong hands could have been just an unlikable lout. Schoenaerts says so much with so little in his complex and sympathetic portrait of a truly unique character.