Review originally published September 7, 2012 as part of Film.com’s coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"Rust and Bone" isn't exactly the film it wants to be, nor is it precisely the film we want it to be. Still, it's a solid little drama from director Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet") that effectively captures the fragmented existence of those crippled by pain, both emotional and physical. Weaving disparate plot lines such as killer whale training, bare-knuckle boxing, and poverty juxtaposed against the burdens of parenthood - "Rust and Bone" is certainly steeped in humanity. Editing and clarity issues keep it from being an all-timer, but if you're a lover of international cinema, you'll find much to enjoy here.
Marion Cotillard is a revelation as Stephanie,, a woman on the fringes of a nervous breakdown. She suffers a cataclysmic physical setback, finding herself unable to get up off the mat without a helping hand. Matthias Schoenaerts (as Alain) is a simple-minded man, willing to fight, but unwilling to love, who (somewhat unwittingly) finds himself as the sturdy structure upon which Stephanie must rebuild. Still, Alain has his own issues. He's dirt poor and living with his sister, his young son Sam in tow. To say Alain isn't a great father is understating the issue. He's massively incapable of showing any affection or exhibiting any semblance of proportional response toward the kid. This duo of relationships, Stephanie-Alain, and Alain-Sam, forms the entire narrative arc of "Rust and Bone," for better and occasionally worse.
Where "Rust and Bone" misfires is in the details, an error which devilishly conspires to undermine the entire endeavor. Alain is a natural brawler, a former kick-boxer, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the rhythm of his life. He's recently moved into town, clearly on the run, but from what? Or whom? There is clearly tension between Alain and his sister, but why? For her part, Cotillard's Stephenie is the most fully-realized character in the film, but even she comes with some oddball loose ends. Stephenie and Alian meet at a dance club (where's he a bouncer) but the genesis and follow-through for the relationship feels needlessly convoluted. The ending is also disparate to the prior proceedings, as if director Jacques Audiard decided to wipe the chess board of the pieces he'd so carefully placed up until that point.
Nevertheless, these issues don't sink the ship. Though not as fulfilling as "A Prophet", "Rust and Bone" is an organic drama that shows off innovative technique. While not an absolute killer whale of cinema, it's at least a high-level porpoise of a film. Which means, yes, "Rust and Bone," has more than a few tricks it's capable of showing an audience.