French director Jacques Audiard tends to explore the conflicts of grave, conflicted men stuck between an instinctual need to overcome basic obstacles and assume greater responsibilities for the world around them. A mere glance at the one-sheets from Audiard's filmography reveals a collection of scowling male faces. The filmmaker achieved the apotheosis of this focus with 2009's "A Prophet," in which a lower-class criminal finds his catharsis in religious transcendence. "Rust and Bone," Audiard's latest effort, never reaches those same heights, although it concerns the same fundamental trajectory. Satisfying for what it is, the movie merely confirms Audiard's skill with engaging actors in the potent theme of retribution.
Although it takes time getting to the point, "Rust and Bone" is essentially a romance between two troubled souls. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a muscular bouncer who moonlights as a street fighter, shows up in the north of France at his sister's place, having abandoned a former flame with a five-year-old son he only knows in passing. Over the course of his work at a local nightclub, he meets the buoyant Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an agile party woman stuck in a deteriorating relationship. After giving her a ride home, the two part ways, and then naturally find a way back to each other: Stephanie works at a local ocean theme park with trained orca whales, one of whom goes rogue in the middle of a show. The ensuing accident causes her to lose her legs and everything stable about her life; in a state of desperation, she calls Ali and the soft-spoken drifter quickly responds.
Their ensuing relationship, an on-again, off-again affair that finds them both attempting to improve each other's messy lives, sustains "Rust and Bone" even as its plot ambles along without many significant developments until its closing scenes. If it lacked such capable actors or Audiard's restraint in depicting his characters' burgeoning connection, the movie would likely suffer from the clichés of the inevitable arguments and sob sessions they routinely indulge in. However, "Rust and Bone" remains consistently well-acted and moves along fluidly even though it never obtains the inspired heights of Audiard's previous work.
Cotillard carries the movie with a supremely raw performance even before Stephanie becomes an amputee. However, spending much of the movie crawling around on her hands, she strips away the glamour now associated with her celebrity. Schoenaerts, meanwhile, capably handles the opposite challenge by dismantling Ali's brawny confidence and hinting at his soft side -- a trick he also pulled off in the Oscar-nominated "Bullhead."
Nevertheless, "Rust and Bone" loses some of its performative strength through a distracting attempt to overdramatic both characters' investment in the dangerous pursuits that give meaning to their lives -- Stephanie with her orcas and Ali with his fists. Audiard's screenplay never develops this notion to any satisfying end and instead routinely nudges it toward a more lyrical notion that never fully materializes. Whenever the director uses slo-mo during key sequences featuring both pursuits, it's as if he's begging audiences to look at the events in a new context that had already been presented organically.
Fortunately, the situation usually speaks for itself, conveying the sentimentalism of the situation without converting it into rote melodrama. A final, climactic event kicks the drama into a higher, near-horrific gear, successfully landing on the epiphany needed to complete the arc of its contained plot. While the exterior is as hardened as its title, "Rust and Bone" is in fact pure heart.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this month in France and set for a U.S. released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year, "Rust and Bone" is likely perform well thanks to Audiard's existing reputation, Cotilard's name, and its status as smart, elegant drama.