Matthias Schoenaerts did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ali in Rust and Bone.
Rust and Bone is an effective film which follows the relationship between a poor amateur boxer and an Orca trainer who lost her legs due to an accident.
The last time I reviewed Matthias Schoenaerts it was for his great work in Bullhead as Jacky a man who spoke with his body and his fists more often than his mouth. Once again in a leading role Schoenaerts plays a deeply physical role, though this time as a rather different character in Ali who perhaps lives in a more typical situation. Ali after all is introduced in a series of scenes depicting him, along with his very young son Sam, going to live with his older sister. There is nothing notable at first about Ali other than the man is obviously living in poverty. Even with this poverty in mind Schoenaerts is dealing with a less innately troubled soul here as shown when we follow him as he begins work as a bouncer in a club. This is where Ali first comes across the Orca Trainer Stéphanie, before her accident, played to perfection by Marion Cotillard as usual. Schoenaerts brings such considerable charm this time around, playing so well an innate likability within Ali in this interaction. Unlike in Bullhead, purposefully so there, Schoenaerts is able to capture a more extroverted spirit and does so effectively by providing within the charm this underlying concern that makes Ali all the more appealing.
Outside of that potentially romantic setting though we see the rest of Ali which Schoenaerts paints in less appealing strokes. What Schoenaerts does here though is avoid any simplification in his portrayal of Ali the rest of the time. This is particularly notable in his scenes with his son Sam where Schoenaerts creates the complexity of the relationship in his performance. He carefully portrays the sort of affection you'd expect from a good father when ever he is interacting with his son in a carefree situation. Whenever his son though requires Ali to directly inconvenience himself and has to deal with the responsibility of his son Schoenaerts reveals a worse side to Ali. He doesn't reveal a different man though in that he manages to portray not an exact contradiction. Schoenaerts instead directly portrays this lack of maturity within these interactions. As he presents Ali's frustrations as these quick reactions without any thought behind them. Schoenaerts in these moments depicts a lack of sort of the logical connections within Ali as it's less being a bad father, though it is that as well, but rather being detached from the idea of being one.
Schoenaert's performance in those moments even interestingly causes you to reexamine his seeming charm from earlier. Although Schoenaerts does not reveal that to be a facade, he does show it to be Ali as man without concern, and that that charm most strongly comes out when in that state of mind. Schoenaerts seems to win the viewer over again though in the scenes he shares with Stéphanie as he sees her after the accident, and takes her to go swimming. Schoenaerts chemistry with Cotillard is something truly remarkable and unique here. In that in the early scenes they are together, past the first scene, they speak to one another certainly but that's not where the connection lies. The connection lies in the physical, and not only the most obvious aspect. The way Schoenaerts interacts with Cotillard when he is just helping around, particularly swimming in the ocean there is this symbiosis. The two seem so complete in these moments and there is this natural joy within the interaction. This does though extend to the obvious of an eventual sexual relationship as well. There is something so powerful in the intimacy they find that again is found within their performances that seem as one in the realization of the solace the two have within each other's presence in these moments.
Schoenaerts excels in terms of the physicality of his performance with Cotillard and his scenes where we see Ali fighting for money. Ali explains he's fighting for cash, but also something more which Schoenaerts seems to purposefully deliver this as a haphazard explanation. The far better explanation comes when we actually see him in the fight itself and Schoenaerts delivers the thrill of the moment as Ali gets into the action. In these moments Schoenaerts shows such passion in the heat of though just for the thrill of it, and it is with this though that Schoenaerts further develops the flaw of the character. In that with those moments purely of the physical whether it is fighting, swimming or sex, Ali seems to most connect with life, but Schoenaerts presents the problem with this though by garnering it some superficiality particularly with Ali's other dalliances. Schoenaerts makes the problematic nature of Ali quite intriguing because he doesn't condemn the behavior but rather the context of it. Even after it seems he and Stéphanie are beginning to connect Ali will go with another woman in front of her. Again it's interesting in that Schoenaerts makes this understandable yet just as painful of an action, by showing Ali's failure to understand his behavior beyond a certain point.
Ali's often selfish ways though catch up with him as he accidentally gets his own sister fired from her job, and he is forced some other path. The film jumps ahead in time to reveal Ali attempting to become a professional boxer but goes to spend some time with his son who has been living with his sister. In their time together an accident occurs where Sam falls through ice on a frozen lake. Schoenaerts is astonishing in this scene as he captures the pure visceral intensity of the moment. The moment has such an impact as Schoenaerts is so within the scene in his powerful portrayal of the breakdown emotionally but he also captures the physical anguish as he exhausts himself to save his son. Schoenaerts is equally heartbreaking moments later as he speaks to Stéphanie over the phone and he finally reveals the man without any barrier of irresponsibility within him. Schoenaerts is incredibly moving as he depicts Ali finally connecting all the way through almost losing his son, and in doing so naturally completes Ali's arc to a better man than he had been. When we see Ali with Stéphanie and his son at the end of the film it is an earned happy ending. Schoenaerts earns it by so vividly portraying the man's moment of clarity. This is a great performance by Matthias Schoenaerts on his own yet achieves even greater heights through the poignant and unique relationship he is able to bring to life with Marion Cotillard.