Chuck Koplinski: 'Rust and Bone' narrowly averts slip into melodrama

Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" walks a fine line between drama and incredulity as it threatens to veer into melodramatic territory at its peril.

Focusing on two damaged individuals who manage to connect and offer each other a sense of tattered salvation, the film requires that the viewer take more than a few leaps of faith as far as the development of the characters and their relationship is concerned. However, Audiard's ability to create settings and a tone grounded in gritty realism (the gripping "A Prophet" was his), as well as the work by his two leads, prevents the film from becoming a dark Douglas Sirk homage.

An overgrown boy himself, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) reluctantly rescues his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) from his mother, who has been using him as a drug mule, and ends up on his estranged sister's doorstep. Clueless as to how to progress with his life, Ali toys with the idea of getting into shape so that he might take up kickboxing again, but in the meantime works as a bouncer at a nightclub.

It's here that he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a distant young woman who gets picked up by the wrong guy and ends up with a bloody nose for her trouble. Ali takes her home, mentions that she dresses like a prostitute and gives her his number after insulting her boyfriend.

One would think that would be the end of that; however, Stephanie suffers a tragic accident as both of her legs are ripped off by a killer whale she trains at the marine mammal center where she works. Alienated, alone and angry, she calls Ali out of the blue, three months after they've met, to strike up a conversation. Why she would do this is one of the more frustrating elements of the screenplay that defies logic and goes unexplained.

The sexual relationship that develops between the two is more realistic as the only sort of sex Ali knows is the casual kind — no emotional connections or entanglements for him — while Stephanie is grateful someone still wants her in that way and, through it, is able to escape her feelings of isolation, if but for a moment.

Of course, things become muddled once she begins to fall for Ali, while the big lug remains clueless of her emotional needs as well as those of his son. Much like "The Sessions," this film regards sex as a sort of therapy through which its characters are able to make an emotional connection that ultimately leads to personal salvation. "Rust and Bone" does a far better job in developing this relationship gradually, making for a more plausible connection to form between the two principals as Stephanie gains the confidence to come out of her shell while Ali finally allows himself to feel.

It becomes evident that this is the path the film is taking, and Audiard nearly botches things by employing a shameless plot device that feels contrived and nearly pushes the film into the realm of the worst sort of melodramatic soap opera. However, Schoenaerts and Cotillard are able to find the proper tone to combat this twist, and the genuine nature in which they approach it salvages the film in the end.

Whether you fully buy the movie's ending depends on how much you desire a happy ending. Audiard certainly suggests that Ali and Stephanie have a shot at happiness, but I couldn't help but feel that with all he's put them through, in the end it simply isn't in the cards for them.

Then again, the film is about coming back from incredible setbacks, so what do I know?

 

'Rust and Bone'

3 stars out of 4

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Celine Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners and Jean-Michel Correia.

Directed by Jacques Audiard; produced by Martine Cassinelli, Pascal Caucheteux and Audiard; screenplay by Thomas Bidegain and Audiard, based on a story by Craig Davidson.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. 120 minutes. Rated R (strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Gangster Squad" a pretender in mobster genre. (2 stars out of 4)

While director Ruben Fleischer's "Gangster Squad" lets us know that it's "inspired by a true story," it becomes clear early on that it's much more interested in the artifice of crime films than the hardboiled facts.

To be sure, it's a good-looking movie as the clothes, cars and locations all look right out of the post-World War II era. Problem is, the whole production seems to have come straight off a movie lot as it lacks the sort of grit that made "L.A. Confidential" such a convincing look at the underbelly of crime. "Gangster Squad" looks and feels like a movie rather than a sordid look at the rough streets of Los Angeles, and as a result, we can never become fully invested in or take it seriously.

Fresh from being mustered out of his unit after serving overseas during WW II, Sgt. John O'Mara is disgusted by the rampant corruption he has to contend with as he tries to uphold the law. While graft in the City of Angels has always been a problem, it's even worse now that Eastern gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has come to town. Intent on ruling the West Coast, the gangster has nearly all of the key politicians and public officials in his pocket. However, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) isn't one of them. Recognizing that O'Mara is a straight arrow, he directs him to take down Cohen by forming an outfit of like-minded cops, all willing to skirt the law and apprehend the mobster by any means necessary.

Fleischer should be given credit for keeping the film moving at a nice clip, but then again, he knows you know where things are headed, so he dispenses with character development, which, as we all know, just slows things down. Soon, O'Mara has recruited the ever-vigilant Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Western sharpshooter Max Kannard (Robert Patrick) and his partner Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) as well as techie Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Of course, the only way cynical holdout Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is convinced to join up is after witnessing a tragedy that was a hoary conceit when it was used in the '30s during the heyday of this genre. Then again, he's more concerned with bedding Cohen's moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), so who can blame him for being distracted?

To be sure, the film is entertaining in its way. There's gunplay aplenty, and Penn is great fun, veering from a sincere approach to Cohen into the best sort of scene-rendering at the drop of a hat. It's not a great performance, but it is engaging, and the actor can't be accused of not earning his pay this time out.

However, the movie winds up being narratively flimsy as, with the exception of O'Mara, we learn very little about what makes these cops tick. Sure, they want to do right, and they each have a moral code to live up to, but where does this behavior come from? Kannard is an interesting case and probably deserves a film of his own as he was obviously a leftover from the era of the Wild West, all of which is never touched upon. As it is here, he, like his vigilante partners, is just another colorful cop. It's hard to care one way or another about their fate, and that's a deadly misstep for a film like this, replete with potentially moving moments what with all the dicey situations that develop.

The obvious model for the film is Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," and while that filmmaker is no stranger to artifice over fact, at the very least he took the time in that movie to allow us to see his cops commiserate, bond and weep over one another. Fleischer isn't interested in that. He would much rather deliver one needlessly bloody moment after another, as he knows it's far easier to create a flimsy sense of style than a film with any substance.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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