TIFF2012: Rust and Bone

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone.”

Rust and Bone may be a film that glides by on critical hype, renowned talent, and typical award-fishing tropes like an actress not wearing make-up and a disabled character. It’s one of those films that seems to have everything going for it, but then you see it, and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a blunt instrument of a man. His actions are motivated purely by basic animalistic desires – survival, sex, and brawling. As a former boxer and kickboxer, Ali is a talented fighter, but his menial employment prospects as a security guard and nightclub bouncer indicate that these aren’t valued skills in the marketplace. He’s brawn without a brain.

The film opens with Ali wandering with his five-year old son in tow in a wonderful introductory montage to the characters where Ali retrieves discarded scraps of food on a train, steals a digital camera to buy a McDonald’s happy meal, and does his best to keep his son comfortable with limited means. There’s no real backstory as to how Ali reclaimed his son from his former lover (or ex-wife), except a small throw-away line that she, and presumably her new boyfriend, used the child to smuggle drugs out of the country. It’s a refreshing introduction told matter-of-factly by Ali to his sister without an ounce of drama. It just is what it is, and nothing beyond that.

While working in the nightclub, Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer from Marineland, after breaking up a brawl she was involved in. He gives her his number, and they part ways. He doesn’t hear from her again until some time later, after she’s suffered from a horrible accident.

Why doesn’t Rust and Bone work? It suffers from the same problem that Ali does – a complete lack of empathy. Horrible things happen to the characters but it is told and portrayed so flatly (or in the case of Stephanie’s accident, in an impressionistic manner that almost completely obsurces the horror of the situation) that events never move beyond the block-headed assertion that “shit happens.” While this kind of undramatic storytelling is refreshing initially, it begins to take its toll because it feels alienating. So – you just suffered a horrific ordeal? Let’s go for a swim.

There’s admirable filmmaking in Rust and Bone, with some incredible sequences – like a slow-motion bare-knuckle brawling match and a fantastic killer whale scene set to upbeat pop music. Both leads do a fantastic job with the characters, and I especially liked Schoenaerts for his potrayal of an emotionally dulled and blank macho man. Cotillard is good, but I feel like the brouhaha over her “bravery” for not wearing make-up and for the special effects used to cripple her character overshadow what is a fairly standard performance (except her scene where she breaks down in the hospital – that alone is worth its weight in Oscar gold).

Rust and Bone does some things admirably, but feels strangely impotent in its ability to move the audience.

Grade: C+

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