Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) epitomizes what we, Westernized, sheltered middle-class citizens, imagine when someone references brutes, bruisers or brutish behavior. Hip-Hop has glamourized “thugs” and “the thug life,” but Ali comes from a place where there is no glamour, where this reality is not a lifestyle choice. He works security to make ends meet and has a late-night gig as a club bouncer that, thanks to the proximity to pretty young faces plastered with pancake makeup and little else covering their bodies, should convey some tangential hip status, but he’s different. His eyes aren’t quite dead and buried yet. His soul clings to the faint heartbeat within his hulking frame.
He has a young son whose mother is way past wayward, which means it becomes obvious, quickly, that Ali must step in as a provider and real presence in the boy’s life. The early exchanges with his son capture the animalistic affection of this bear of a man as his huge blunt paws transform into firm, good hands. And again, his eyes see and appreciate innocence, maybe a hint of himself that is long gone but not completely forgotten.
So he sets off with the boy in tow, from Belgium for Antibes, to stay with family — his sister and brother-in-law — who are not much better off, surviving on the fringe of the fringe. Ali falls right into place here, hustling, and soon he stumbles into underground fighting, where his body, armor-plated (though decidedly not gym-sculpted) raw muscle earns him extra money and a degree of street cred.
One night, working the door at a club, he encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a woman who swims with whales (at a Sea World-styled aquarium) and suffers through a less than supportive relationship.
It is clear though that Stephanie lives inside herself, swimming through her own deep emotional tides, and she senses, in Ali, a similar kindred spirit. They exchange contact info and seem ready to drift apart.
After a catastrophic accident results in the amputation of Stephanie’s legs, she reaches out to Ali, even though they barely shared any meaningful time together. And the bond that forms between them, primal and primitive in its fashion, taps into long-buried needs in each of them. Ali, for all his power and physicality, has a nurturing core and Stephanie, eager to prove she’s still a vital woman, seeks a means to dance, fight, swim again and maybe even fly away.
Ali introduces Stephanie to his son and begins taking her to his fights. There’s a marvelous scene with Stephanie waiting in the car, while Ali pulverizes an opponent. He comes back to the car to blow off some of the extra steam he didn’t get the opportunity to release during the fight and then he heads off for a quick run. She watches silently and we realize just how much she understands the build-up of energy and then, of course, there is her longing for release, which remains unfulfilled.
Rust and Bone captures much of the dynamic between Ali and Stephanie without excessive dialogue; there are few situations where they feel the need to explain themselves. They are creatures of action, full of passion, which at times, results in unintended emotional carelessness. Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) strips away the glossy surface sheen we’ve come to expect from such dramas here in the U.S., exposing a rawness of experience and character that takes audiences into another world, a ragged place that is home to these people.
Yet, it all hinges on the performances of Schoenaerts and Cotillard. Schoenaerts, following his breathtakingly bullish turn in Bullhead, is no one-trick brute. That earlier film was a study in escalating destructive fire, but here, despite containing the same explosive force, he reveals himself through gentle exertions, his aching need to care, although it is clear that he’s learning how to as he goes along. Cotillard, on the other hand, has the kinetic energy, the barely contained and articulated desires. Words are not her means of expression; that would be action, and robbed of the ability, Cotillard shows us the limits and the kernel of hope that Schoenaerts’ Ali offers.
Stepping away from the narrative, it is likely that audiences will recognize the familiar plot points, laid out like breadcrumbs, but rather than feeling insulted by these elements, what will emerge is the sense that, while watching everything unfold, none of the intellectual concerns matter. Rust and Bone and its magnetic central characters made it all feel new and devastatingly real. (R) Grade: A