The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, but lost to A Separation. The film was shot mainly in Truierlands, a Limburgish dialect.
In Sint-Truiden, cattle farmer Jacky visits a distant relative and intimidates him into selling cows. In the local area, a mafia deals in illegal hormones and controls the cattle and meat trade. The farmers sell cows to the mafia, who inject the cows with hormones and the cows are made into food. We soon learn that Jacky is injecting himself with steroids intended for cattle.
A mafia heavy takes a car to two mechanics and asks them to make it disappear. They find a bullet hole and see a news report about a murdered police detective and realize the car was involved.
A high-ranking member of the mafia sets up a deal with Jacky and brings his new associate Diederik, who has something to do with Jacky's mysterious past. Diederik is actually a police informant employed by police detective Eva, who is investigating the mafia.
20 years ago, Jacky and Diederik were childhood best friends. Jacky's dad, also a cattle farmer, dealt with the mafia and brought the boys along to a deal. Jacky fell in love with Lucia, the daughter of one of the mobsters, whose psychopathic brother Bruno tried to prostitute her. Jacky's dad takes the boys home, but they ride their bikes back to see Lucia, only to be caught by Bruno. Bruno forces Jacky onto the ground and his friends gather around as Bruno smashes Jacky's testicles with two rocks, castrating him. Disgusted, Bruno's friends abandon him and Diederik leaves as well. When Diederik's father, another cattle farmer, finds out, he forbids Diederik from talking to the police, as it could ruin their connections with the mafia. Jacky is forced to begin injecting testosterone, or he will never go through puberty.
In the present, Jacky goes to a store and meets a salesgirl, who is actually Lucia. He begins occasionally stalking her and one night, he follows her to a club. When he tries to speak with Lucia he is interrupted by her male acquaintance who flirts with her and asks her to dance. The man leaves the club and Jacky follows him, beating him into a coma. Lucia begins to suspect that Jacky is the boy that Bruno attacked when they were children. Lucia visits Jacky at his home, during their meeting she receives a call from a friend informing her about what happened at the club. Lucia notices bruises on Jacky's knuckles and suspects he is responsible. The police believe that Jacky may be involved in the murder of the cop and decide to raid his property. Diederik tips him off and the two go on the run.
Jacky attempts to see Lucia, but she refuses to let him into her apartment. He becomes increasingly agitated and she invites him in. She admits that she has called the police and knows he is responsible for attacking her friend. In Lucia's bathroom Jacky administers a dangerous dose of testosterone. The police arrive and arrest him and in a testosterone induced rage he attacks the officers. He is shot in the stomach and dies from his wounds.Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille
Jeroen Perceval as Diederik Maes
Jeanne Dandoy as Lucia Schepers
Barbara Sarafian as Eva Forrestier
Tibo Vandenborre as Anthony De Greef
Frank Lammers as Sam Raymond
Sam Louwyck as Marc de Kuyper
The film was selected for the panorama section of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. It premiered in the United States at Fantastic Fest in Austin. Drafthouse Films acquired the rights to distribute the film in the United States where it opened on 17 February 2012 in a limited release.
The film has received generally favourable reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 87% based on 59 reviews. Metacritic gives the film a weighted average rating of 69/100 based on 23 reviews.
While criticizing the film's awkward flow due to its use of flashbacks, Roger Ebert praised the performance from lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts, noting that
"The one excellent aspect of the film is Matthias Schoenaerts' performance. We often follow him walking in a controlled lurch from side to side, as if merely walking is not enough of a challenge for him. We see his eyes, burning with pain. [...] [The film] impresses because of the pain, sadness and rage contained in the title performance by Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who bulked up for the role (without steroids), and seems ready to burst from his clothes and even his skin."
Bullhead was awarded both the New Authors Audience Award and the New Authors Critic’s Prize for Best Actor (Matthias Schoenaerts) AFI Fest. The film won the AMD-sponsored Next Wave Award at Fantastic Fest. Matthias Schoenaerts won the FIPRESCI Award for best actor at Palm Springs International Film Festival. The jury praised the actor’s "superb portrayal of an innocent and sensitive man trapped in a truculent body." It won the Best Film Award at the Ostend Film Festival, received nine Magritte Award nominations and went on to win the awards for Best Flemish Film in Coproduction, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (for Schoernaerts) and Best Editing. The film also received the André Cavens Award.
Bullhead was selected as the Belgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards. It was officially nominated in this category on 24 January 2012, but ultimately lost to the Iranian submission A Separation.