Racer and the Jailbird : A Soul-less and Tedious Film About Unconditional Love
Going by the title, Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam’s Racer and the Jailbird sounds like an adrenaline pumping crime actioner. While the film does features racing cars and near-death-heist sequences, it is more inclined towards the romance between it’s two stylish, well-matched leads. Sadly, the film is neither engaging enough as a racing-cum-heist thriller, nor is emotionally numbing or heartbreaking as a drama about the tragedies of unconditional love.
The film opens with a rather sordid opening where the young Gigi is seen drenched in wounds and running away from the police and unconcerned foster-parents but mostly from dogs who seem to threaten the life out of him. We are forced into a conflict then and there, where we question the intentions of the director from the word go. Is Gigi just scared of the dogs or the childhood trauma is deeper than it seems?
We then cut to Gigi’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) story who is at a race track uncompromisingly baffled by the charisma and style of the driver on the tracks. Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos), is a young racer whose interest in speed seems to come off more as a distraction and not a spirit of true sport. Much like Gigi whose actual business and distraction are not importing and exporting cars but robbing banks in what seems like a well-planned, old-school heist. Which is why the romance between them blossoms with a lot of sexual energy and real, intimate moments which submerge their mutual distractions into one another.
The downside of it all is the secret. Gigi hides his actual profession from Bibi so that it doesn’t affect her. In doing so, he causes the real tragedy of love – i.e the unfathomable feeling of being left out. So, even though their love seems real and strong there’s bound to be failures. This is where Roskam’s film becomes a tedious slog with forced and straight-forward conflicts. The biggest of them all is the film following a narrative that is broken into three and yet not a single thing happens that validates its existence. The bogged down, ill-paced narrative further dwells on a cancer-subplot and obnoxious melodrama that doesn’t suffice the whole arc of martyrdom on which the film is hinged.
The first leg of the film which features an interesting looking heist and few moments of intense sexual chemistry is probably the least bothersome part of Roskam’s film. There’s a touch of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic calming motifs in all shots that feature Gigi’s tragic past when he sits in his flat contemplation toy cars and haunting memories. However, Roskam’s choices thereafter feel like a terrible slog to manifest a tragedy out of something that doesn’t emotionally drain you. It neither festers on real, emotional feeling, nor on something more than trying to change oneself but being unable to.
The original title – Le Fidèle which translates to The Faithful contemplates on possible infidelity but Roskam fuses his film into a sluggish melodrama which doesn’t really know where it wishes to go. It’s a real tragedy seeing how Matthias Schoenaerts is incredible in giving life to a character that is terribly underwritten and overcooked. Adèle Exarchopoulos’s Bibi is a strong young character but a drastically obnoxious turn in the final act makes her go out with a limping note. I would have used a racing-car metaphor to define Roskam’s Race and the Jailbird but it is that racing car which has moved out of track too early in the race because of engine failure.