“Rust and Bone” (2012)

by A.J. Hakari


During the course of my film-consuming travels, I’ve come to develop an aversion to a subsect of cinema best described as “sad porn.” This encompasses those pictures that exist solely to make viewers realize how good they have it, at the expense of chucking characters through a relentless onslaught of misery. So frustratingly often do these stories regard their own players less as humans and more like props from which tragedy can be liberally wrought, it’s admittedly put me off of hitting up similar-sounding but otherwise hailed flicks, a la 2012’s Rust and Bone. Having originated in France — whose reputation as home of moviedom’s consummate bummers has become earned scores of times over — didn’t help either, but while its content embraces the bleak, the way in which it’s laid before the audience refreshingly keeps them on their toes. Rust and Bone‘s ensemble endures a lot, yet the subverted expectations it proceeds to leave in its wake ensures us that nothing’s about to end in a shallow platitude.

Life has given Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) the short end of a shriveled nub that used to be a stick. With his young son (Armand Verdure) by his side, he wanders the streets, raiding train cars for food and crashing wherever’s warmest for the night. Moving in with his sister provides Ali and his boy with a degree of stability, as does work as a night club bouncer, which sees him crossing paths with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). A killer whale trainer at a marine park, Stephanie is herself beset by misfortune when a workplace accident claims both of her legs. Left despondent and with little hope, she finds unlikely solace in the company of Ali, who comes to serve as emotional support as frequently as he does as sexual partner. Bit by bit, Stephanie’s drive returns to her, though her newfound lover continues to tread a self-destructive path, one wracked with bad decisions that may cost him what little family life he has remaining.

The process of Rust and Bone winning one’s self over isn’t easy, nor should it be. Its initial chords are struck heavy indeed, thrusting us into a somber atmosphere that only grows more oppressive as our tale unfurls. Shocking twists, dramatic developments, and harrowing incidents pile up at a rate that teeters on the precipice of improbability, until the reason why director/co-writer Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) so expediently tears through them sinks in. Rust and Bone borrows inspiration from a short story collection by author Craig Davidson, with whom comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk have regularly been drawn. With each’s work teeming with quirks and peculiar narrative threads, it becomes all the more evident that while Audiard has imbued his subject matter with a certain gravity, he’s having a dark chuckle with it all at the same time. We’re teased with subplots involving covert surveillance, bare-knuckle brawls, and ambiguous child abuse, each one threatening to evolve into the tale’s next molehill, until it’s wryly shrugged off by both Audiard and the characters themselves as just another log for the melodramatic fire that is their lives. Pitch as its shade may be, it’s a darkly humorous storytelling approach all the same, acknowledging the cosmic weirdness of so many plights stacking up so swiftly in a fashion that comes across as more respectful than condescending.

Creatively, Rust and Bone is a considerably mad gamble, yet fortune soon favors Audiard, thanks in no small part to his actors. Having since left an impression on both the art house and multiplex scenes upon this picture’s release, Cotillard engages us here with a nimble performance, in a role that may have skidded into caricature with less sure hands guiding it. There are some of the requisite emotional outbursts and hurled glassware on display in other stories of this nature, but in this case, they’re the exception more than the rule, for the way in which Cotillard internalizes Stephanie’s turmoil makes her ascension from rock bottom doubly gripping. Despite Ali’s efforts to do right by his kin, Schoenaerts doesn’t sugarcoat what an oaf his often selfish impulses can turn him into. But due to the humanity and almost animal-like resilience our man brings to the table, Ali is never judged or painted in a monstrous manner. For all of the flaws in character that Audiard includes to potentially enhance and exploit, Rust and Bone refuses to look down on the souls scurrying about its frames, the thought of using them as a crutch to elicit some easy tears rarely (if ever) crossing its mind. That said, the narrative can be so intensely zeroed in on Stephanie and Ali’s goings-on that the other figures in their lives tend to blur into the background. Verdure does fine work for an actor of his age, although he’s scantly seen outside of the odd screaming fit. The same can be said of the voyeurs, fighters, and various folks our protagonists come to encounter, yet in all fairness, it could be said to play into how they’ve shut out the world in their own ways and how much work to correct that is still left to be done.

Rust and Bone was one of the hardest sits I’ve experienced in some time, but rest assured that pure obligation wasn’t my only incentive for toughing it out. While a garden-variety heartstring-yanker on the surface, the movie gradually reveals layers replete with cleverness and concern, conveyed through unusual means that are nevertheless rewarding once one adjusts to them. Though not a blatant parody in the Naked Gun sense, Rust and Bone dallies with thumbing its nose at many a depression-laden prestige picture and ends up giving far more of a damn about its characters than most of them, to boot.

(This review is part of a crossover exchange with Jacob Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here to listen to Jacob’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, The Wizard of Speed and Time.)