One of the better decisions made by the creative coterie behind Rust and Bone was to not make the female lead’s post-accident disability define her. Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and co-writer Thomas Bidegain took an organic path in combining characters from two separate short stories by author Craig Davidson, switching the gender of Davidson’s killer-whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) and colliding her life with down-on-his-luck fighter Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts). With frequent collaborator Stephane Fontaine directing the photography, Audiard alternates gritty realism with periodic meditative moments as he clashes souls and storylines.
We meet Ali first, as Audiard depicts him relying on street-survival skills to support his son Sam (Armand Verdure). Ali has no fear and scant self-pity for how the dice of life have rolled for him, but he’ll go to great lengths to make sure Sam doesn’t starve as they head to the south of France to stay with Ali’s struggling sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero). Ali quickly gets settled with a job in security, which leads to him making connections in local underground fight circles. He also breaks up a fight at nightclub between a male patron and Stephanie (Cotillard), whom he escorts home but insults with judgmental comments. Still, he leaves his number with her before putting her out of mind to focus on training and a side job installing illegal surveillance cameras. Ali’s moral compass is directionless, but he’s what Stephanie needs after an incident leaves her a double amputee. Ali helps her recover, but his empathy is limited — unlike his capacity for self-destruction. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are instrumental in the successful realization of Audiard’s vision in which brutality and love coexist, and comfort zones are fleeting and subject to sudden life-changing shocks. Rust and Bone breathes and bleeds with realism.