Saturday, January 12, 2013

Like: Rust and Bone

It's a bad sign, I think, when the emotional intensity of a scene in a serious drama gets a major boost from a Katy Perry song.  It's not much better when a film pulls in a sudden poignant voice-over to attempt to deliver its final blow. It's a far worse sign, perhaps, when a drama requires truly far-fetched, criminally underused plot elements to differentiate itself.  Rust and Bone is a film guilty on both counts.  It aspires to devastating realism, seems to want to put forth a lovely poetic thesis on the qualities of the human soul, and while it finds several beautiful small moments, they never seem to collide with the intensity or resonance Jacques Audiard desires.  I left Rust and Bone exhausted and bored, frustrated by the ways the film seemed to think it was constructing something meaningful out of the deliberately evasive. Audiard's work has left me cold before, and it's possible I'm just not a fan of his style of storytelling, but Rust and Bone had enough strong moments and impulses towards plotting to make the sketchy bits seem comparatively minor while the exact details felt so over-the-top arbitrary that the seemingly raw emotions depicted fell utterly flat.  
Marion Cotillard puts in a strong but underwhelming performance as Stephanie, a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in, yes, a freak killer whale accident. She's the more interesting character, frankly, but the film is unevenly more devoted to the tediously pathetic lifestyle of Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shitty vagrant father turned bouncer turned big box store security guard turned underground kickboxing champ. Ali meets Stephanie at a club when she still has her legs, he helps her out, and for some reason she decides to call him up in her depressive funk post-amputation.  From there, the film attempts to balance the curious crashing intersection of the lives of these two characters, odd because they've seemingly forced themselves together.  It was unclear to me at any given point why they persisted in any one direction. Love isn't the answer, or at least not the whole answer, and those who choose to refer to Rust and Bone as a romance are simplifying its narrative in the extreme. So, they force themselves together. Ali helps Stephanie, and these scenes of their connection have the most power. Stephanie grows as a person, we can see her character coming to terms with her situation, opening herself for the possibility of a new life, and this is largely thanks to Cotillard's abilities as an actress.  Stephanie shows us what it is she gets from Ali. The ways in which he is a distraction, a safe haven, and a possible love interest.  There are really lovely moments in which we see the way he takes time to bring her to the beach, to place her in the water and allow her freedom without pity.  There are equally lovely moments in which they awkwardly engage each other sexually, and we can see something change in Cotillard's face.
That said, while Stephanie pulls focus, her story is an accidental entanglement in a very messy Ali-centric story. Rust and Bone is based on the work of writer Craig Davidson, and while I don't believe I've read Davidson's work it seems very possible that the fictions are filtered through male protagonists and Stephanie was never meant to dominate quite so much. So, while Stephanie grows, we are subjected to weird subplots mentioning the mother of Ali's child using her son for drug smuggling, the relationship between Ali and his grocery cashier sister, the ways in which Ali is an immature and negligent father, the illegal surveillance operation he finds himself involved in, his violent tendencies and life on the kickboxing circuit, his attempts to go pro, and an irritating sequence involving a stupid decision on a frozen pond. If that sounds like a lot, it really is. Ultimately, while the pieces are too sloppy, too matter of fact and humorless for us to fully embrace this half-strange world of kick-boxers, amputee whale trainers, and grocery store spies.  The more it piled on, the more cloying and silly it seemed, which is a shame. There are very real elements here, very beautiful, assured performances and moments of cinematographic brilliance, but ultimately the film is a jumble of broken bones that never heals the way it should.

EDIT: 1/13: After reading back over my own review I decided that while I didn't find the film nearly as brilliant or interesting as many others, my commentary generally veered further towards a 'like' than a squalor. So, I've upgraded the film's general ranking slightly.

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