Genre: Crime, Drama
Directed by: Michaël R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric De Staercke
Bibi (Adèle Exarchopolous) is a racing driver. Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a bank robber. The two meet and soon fall in love; Gigi endeavouring to keep his real profession a secret from Bibi. As the jobs his gang pull get bigger and bigger, it isn’t long before she starts suspecting that her lover is hiding something.
Racer and the Jailbird is split into three sections, demarcated by title cards. The first section, the longest, is perfectly fine. It’s all very generic (the love story marred by secrets and lies, the bank robber’s promise of ‘one last job’) but engaging nonetheless. There’s a chemistry between Schoenaerts and Exarchopolous that supersedes some clumsy dialogue. Michaël R. Roskam, working with Schoenaerts for the third time after Bullhead and The Drop, directs with enough dynamism to keep the action flowing. It’s a competent, if unoriginal, hour of cinema.
Then comes the second section, and the quality drops off considerably. A major turning point rests on an unbelievable plot contrivance. Themes and characters are introduced and discarded willy-nilly. The first section, for its flaws, has momentum. That’s all lost in section two.
That’s nothing compared to the finale, where all logic evaporates, and nothing makes any sense any more. It starts with a cheap, unearned twist. The action leaps and stalls at random; you’re left with the constant feeling you’ve missed something. You feel for the tragic lovers in the first section, but by the third, it’s really hard to care. The dialogue moves from forgivably bad to abhorrent, the most egregious, clichétastic example: “We’re locked up like animals in cages. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel”. Perhaps the problems lie in the subtitle translation, perhaps in the original dialogue. Either way, it’s so bad, it’s laughable.Amidst the growing disaster, Roskam rescues a few scenes from catastrophe. The epic robbery of an armoured car by Gigi’s gang is masterfully filmed; all in one shot, exciting and stylish. The driving sequences, both on and off the track, have an energy to them that reminds you what an excellent director Roskam can be. The copious faults lie with his screenplay (co-written by Thomas Bidegrain and Noé Debré), not his direction.
Whilst Racer and the Jailbird collapses around them, Exarchopolous and Schoenaerts heroically struggle on. Their performances are befitting of a much better film, and they deserve to escape this mess with their reputations unscathed. We’re asked to believe in the intensity of their love almost immediately, and they make that easy to do. Separately they’re compelling, together they’re magnetic. It would be nice to see them paired in a superior film in the not-too-distant future.
It’s a testament to the talent of Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopolous that Racer and the Jailbird stays watchable for as long as it does. They just aren’t enough to save the movie from its precipitous drop in quality. To utilise a cliché that would fit in well with the rest of the dialogue here: that ending needs to be seen to be believed.