Writer/director Jacques Audiard enjoys subverting clichés. He places them in original settings and twists them by playing it straight. There’s the ex-con love story of Read My Lips, the torn pianist at the center of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and–my favorite–the classic prison saga, A Prophet. Each film is tinged with crime elements, and they seem to take pride in highlighting previously unexplored careers (A Prophet is more unexplored culture). Rust and Bone continues Audiard’s style of approaching the predictable in unpredictable ways.
It’s a love story between a bouncer and a killer whale trainer. We’ve all seen one of these before. When tragedy strikes and it becomes a handicap’s love story, you’ve definitely seen this type of story before. But the film doesn’t go for sap, or cheap tears. It’s not a movie of the week. It avoids these pitfalls by diving deeper into the main characters. The bouncer, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (who was great in last year’s Bullhead and is a lock to be the villain in the next Bourne/Mission: Impossible/Bond whichever comes first), is a struggling single father and a part-time bare-knuckle brawler on the underground circuit. The trainer, Marion Cotillard, has to find a new passion now that there is a void in her life.
It’s not an obvious courtship because neither is looking for what’s right in front of them. Rust and Bone is less about romance and more about learning how to be operational. It’s about finding strength by doing what you love. For Cotillard, it’s a search, and for Schoenaerts it’s an awakening. Schoenaerts does a great job playing a brute. He’s careful not to play it too dim. His character isn’t dumb, just selfish. Cotillard is wonderful, as usual. She could have really hammed it up considering the material, but she goes for quiet fortitude instead and it pays off. The film’s best moments are when it feels like a thrilling mix of Coming Home and Bloodsport. Audiard isn’t concerned that he has a strange brew. He’s trying to get to the root of these lonely souls.
For the most part, he’s successful. However, Schoenaert’s character is such a terrible father for so much of the movie that my sympathies were not so easily won. His redemption comes courtesy of an unnecessary subplot and a climax that is so blunt I’m not sure it works. And while the ocean/water metaphors are effective and visually marvelous even with the obvious setting change to snow/ice, Audiard’s strength is human connection, and those are the film’s best parts. The film is most successful when it’s raw. Audiard can be direct and pull it off, but with Rust and Bone he’s only just barely.