Reviewed by Lee Hill
Flemish director Michael R Roskam is best known for his noirish debut, Bullhead (2011), a searing character study of a young farmer caught up in the black market for illegal beef products. Bullhead made Matthias Schoenaerts one of the latest stars of European arthouse cinema to cross over to a global audience. It also established Roskam as a director who could combine character driven drama with suspense. Roskam and Schoenaerts worked on James Gandofini’s last film, The Drop (2014), and have reunited for a third time on this thriller about two seemingly mismatched, but obsessive lovers.
Gigi (Schoenaerts) and his alpha male pals are introduced partying at a Formula One race at one of Europe’s glittering playgrounds for the beautiful people. Gigi quickly falls head over heels with Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos), an up and coming driver, whose father is a wealthy construction magnate. It soon becomes clear that Gigi and his friends underwrite their taste for the high life by executing a series of masterfully staged and very lucrative robberies. As the romance between Gigi and Bibi enters a more serious stage of commitment, it becomes clear that the love between the two characters is doomed. Gigi – unsurprisingly – just needs one last big score before he can go legit. Bibi, less explicably, is willing to forgive Gigi his outlaw past once this happens. Little of this character arc makes much sense upon reflection, but to Roskam and his co-writers’ credit, they keep things moving fast enough that you don’t really care until the credits roll.
As an example of a slick Euro thriller, there is much to recommend about The Racer and The Jailbird, but it ultimately suffers from an all too familiar problem in modern cinema; it’s too long given the story it is trying to tell. It also lacks the specific feel for place that Roskam’s previous films had. This is a film that seems to take place in one giant Euro city, where the streets are often conveniently empty for a car chase to get underway. The best set-piece in the film is an ambush involving a highway overpass, and more of that sense of the unfamiliar would have elevated this film to the genre heights it aspires to.
The screenplay by Thomas Bidgeain and Noe Debre, who have worked with far greater nuance and depth with Jacques Audiard (The Prophet) in the past, has strong echoes of Michael Mann, particularly Heat. Heat also featured impossibly good looking and smart robbers fatalistically hooked on one elaborate robbery after another, but it also had a charismatic good guy in pursuit to root for. As gifted as the two lead actors are, they are not exactly moral examplars and their romantic problems aren’t worth a hill of proverbial beans.
Roskam brings lots of style to this film, but not enough to transcend the familiarity of under pressure gangsters trying to pull the ultimate heist. A cancer sub-plot recalls a similar trope in Sydney Pollack’s much underrated Bobby Deerfield, which also dealt with the European race car set. The Racer and The Jailbird is a curious hybrid, a largely impersonal thrill machine with nods to the kind of personal filmmaking that brought Roskam to attention in the first place. While Roskam has style to burn, you wish he had brought it to a story more rooted in the Belgian milieu that made Bullhead such a remarkable film.
Screenplay by Thomas Bidgeain and Noe Debre.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Adele Exarchopoulos