Tuesday 3 October 2017

Racer and the Jailbird (Michaël R. Roskam, 2017)

Once you get past its terrible English title, Racer and the Jailbird is a passable crime drama which manages to engage the viewer even as it becomes increasingly ludicrous.  It's the third feature from Michaël R. Roskam, who previously directed two very solid works in the form of Rundskop and The Drop.  The star of those two movies, Matthias Schoenaerts, here reteams with Roskam, and for this film he's joined by Adèle Exarchopoulos, a highly capable young actress best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour.  It's largely thanks to Exarchopoulos' performance that Roskam's film always remains on the right side of watchable.

Schoenaerts' Gigi is part of a Brussels-based gang of armed robbers.  Exarchopoulos' Bibi is a rich kid who also happens to be a very competent racing driver.  The two meet, and sparks fly, although the film neatly sidesteps the obvious (which would be: Bibi becomes the gang's getaway driver) and takes a very different route, as Gigi does all he can to conceal his life of crime from the woman he's besotted with.  For quite some time, the film posits the idea that this arrangement may just work, but we all know that the roof will fall in on Gigi sooner or later; when it does, we're curious to see which way both the film and Bibi will go.

Overstuffed and somewhat undercooked, Racer and the Jailbird works quite well as slickly-made trash, but as the lengthy running time progresses and the ridiculousness piles up, it's a hard film to take seriously.  Eventually, there's a development involving Bibi which marks the point where the film properly jumps the shark, and from then on it's difficult to believe that the director is being sincere.  The remainder of the film is drowning in bathos, and it's hard to know quite what Roskam expects us to make of this stew.  What started off as a taut semi-polar really starts to sag, although an impressive extended shot - presumably a nod to Claude Lelouch - makes for a nice touch at the very end.

While the film is by no means terrible, it's all just a bit too silly, and it's disappointing that Roskam has not kicked on from the The Drop; in his short filmography, this latest effort is easily his weakest movie.  Exarchopoulos, as already mentioned, is great, and Schoenaerts typically puts it all in (in every film he's starred in for Roskam, he's never acted in the same language more than once - that's versatility for you).   The problem with the film lies not with the performances or the mise-en-scène, but in the screenplay - Thomas Bidegain is credited as co-writer, and the film's hardened-crim-forges-relationship-with-innocent setup smacks a little too much of his Rust and Bone (which also starred Schoenaerts, so comparisons come leaping out from the screen).  Bidegain is a very fine writer whose collaborations with Jacques Audiard have produced some of the best cinema of the past decade, but here we can only assume he's 'phoning it in and/or doing it for an easy payday.

Racer and the Jailbird is a good-looking slice of pulp, albeit one which would work much better as an 85 minute experience as opposed to the horribly bloated 130 minutes we're faced with.  While this rote thriller makes for an undemanding evening's entertainment, everyone is right to expect a lot more from Roskam at this stage of his career.  The film has been submitted as Belgium's entry for the Oscars, but it's hard to believe that this is the very best the country has to offer.  It screens at the London Film Festival on  the 4th, 5th and 7th of October (the earliest of those dates coinciding with its release in Belgian cinemas).  It will be released in the Netherlands on the 2nd of November.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net