What happens when you have a film about a professional female race driver who at no point assists her bank-robbing husband as a getaway driver? A missed opportunity is what. And all this when recently they have honest-to-God babies assisting in heists. Babies, I say! (Yes, this joke works better if you consider the English language title of the film, Racer and the Jailbird. Yes, my Anglocentric-ness is showing.)
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam (The Drop) and shot in his native Belgium under the original French title Le Fidèle, Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour) star as Gigi Vanoirbeek and Bibi Delhany, the aforementioned gangster and driver. Meeting at the after-party for one of Bibi’s races, the two quickly fall for each other and marry, Bibi still unaware of Gigi’s true occupation. Things start to get complicated when Bibi begins to suspect what Gigi does when he continues to prioritise mysterious trips with his friends over time with her. When one of Gigi’s operations gets out of hand, she comes to realise that aiding the police may be the only way to keep Gigi safe.
There is much to like from the first and second acts of the film, which is split up into sections (“Gigi” and “Bibi”) giving events generally from the point of view of each of the two main characters in turn. There is a decidedly, and one would assume intentional, Goodfellas-like feel to Gigi’s lifestyle spent with the friends who have constituted his family since his childhood.
While Gigi’s character doesn’t always feel that well-drawn, Schoenaerts brings a lot of charm as well as vulnerability to the role. Exarchopoulos is perhaps given a more difficult part, as she is not given as much characterisation to work with.Ssomething which is perhaps illustrated best by considering how in a film about a rally driver and a thief, racing becomes entirely eclipsed by thieving. At the same time, more of the drama hinges on her performance with many of the film’s pivotal moments focusing on her reactions alone.
Racer and the Jailbird comes off the rails in its third act. As Owen Glieberman observed in Variety, “Gigi’s incarceration is the wrong kind of obstacle.” When the two characters are separated, the narrative doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself anymore. The relatively condensed time of the first half is now stretched out into years as Gigi and Bibi struggle to maintain their relationship, and the film seems to alternatively remember and forget characters as it goes along. Ultimately, things descend into melodrama as more and more unlikely storylines pile on top of each other.
One wonders whether the three acts were written separately. Acts one and two work well in tandem. They could almost work as a satisfying film themselves. Act three, in comparison, feels tacked on and about three times as long.
Overall, Racer and the Jailbird’s interesting set-up with compelling character arcs is hampered by an over-the-top and left-of-field third act. Perhaps the one reason to stick around until the end is for the ending itself. The concluding scene is genuinely chilling and worthy of reflection. However, one wonders if it’s quite enough to make up for the effort in getting there.