In last year’s Oscar-nominated Bullhead, Matthias Schoenaerts left a strong impression with his by turns quietly searing and explosive portrayal of a dangerous, desperate man in basic survival mode. His role in Rust and Bone is in a sense an extension of that character, but with added depth, confirming that the actor’s talents far outweigh his muscle mass.
Schoenaerts plays Alain, the father of a young boy, and though it is implied that he is the more responsible of the child’s parents, he is quite negligent himself. He often leaves his son in his sister’s care and instead spends time working odd jobs and training at the gym (he’s a fighter whose path to the professional big time is far from legit).
While working as a bouncer at a club one night he comes to the aid of a woman (Marion Cotillard), and though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s met his match. The same goes for Schoenaerts—as a killer-whale trainer who loses both her legs and in effect the job she adores in a terrible accident, Cotillard delivers what is by far her finest, rawest performance to date. Immobile, physically and mentally, she reaches out to Alain; he treats her like a human being, without a trace of pity, and they begin to form a complicated, increasingly tight bond. While neatly avoiding melodrama, Rust and Bone is Jacques most emotionally engaging work yet. It’s a film for people who believe that fallen souls aren’t inevitably destined to become lost ones.