Where the film’s first half is stirring, fascinating and charming, its final acts are laborious, maudlin and comically depressing.
Even when Michaël R. Roskam made his English language debut, The Drop, with powerhouse star Tom Hardy, his secret weapon was still frequent collaborator Matthias Schoenaerts, one of the most underrated performers in cinema today. Schoenaerts broke out in Roskam’s debut , Bullhead, before stealing The Drop out from under Hardy’s feet, but he still hasn’t landed the kind of roles to put him on Hardy’s level for the rest of the industry. In a just world, Roskam’s latest, Racer and the Jailbird, would change that, but it would require audiences en masse to walk out of the film precisely halfway through—before it devolves into absolute garbage.
That’s an unrealistic expectation, to be sure, but upon completing this film, viewers will want nothing more than to travel back in time roughly one hour to physically extricate themselves from the auditorium and instead live in a world where perhaps a projector failure saved them from watching one of the most compelling crime films in recent memory fly off the rails and become one of the worst.
Racer and the Jailbird follows a racecar driver named Bibi (Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos) who falls for a bank robber named Gigi (Schoenaerts). Their courtship is swift, passionate and bordering on unbelievable, if not for the magnetic chemistry of the film’s two capable leads. Schoenaert and Exarchopoulos are perfect together on screen. Though the script, co-penned by A Prophet scribe and Jacque Audiard-collaborator Thomas Bidegain, trends more towards patient suspense than thoughtful romance, the actors bring so much to the silent glances and “shot reverse shot” eye contact that some of the on-the-nose dialogue rings like poetry.
The problem in the film comes from its central conflict. Bibi and Gigi love one another and want to get married, but Bibi’s father (Eric De Staercke), being even marginally intelligent, sees through Gigi’s “car exports” cover story and knows he’s a career criminal. In order to settle down with Bibi, Gigi’s got to quit the game and, of course, pull “one last job” to secure his future. That premise works fine, especially in how it functions as a metaphor for men needing to mature before truly settling down, as Gigi’s gang doubles as his crew of best friends. There’s also some interesting gristle about how the gang all grew up in poverty and with stints in juvenile detention; so they resent Gigi wanting to marry into an affluent family, when the main motivation behind them robbing banks is taking from the rich who’ve treated them like animals all their life.
Everything leading up to the culmination of this conflict is lensed with care, coming off like an esoteric take on the domestic scenes in Michael Mann’s Heat, and the final heist is one of the most brutally efficient jobs pulled on camera in quite some time. But the fallout from the job goes all the way left. If you’re watching a movie about a bank robber who falls in love with a racecar driver, you might presume that at some point, perhaps, the latter will have to use her skills behind the wheel to play getaway driver or get mixed up in his life of crime. That would be a perfectly reasonable expectation for this kind of story. In a mild spoiler alert, that does not happen, but what does occur ends up turning this into a completely different, vastly inferior movie.
Where the film’s first half is stirring, fascinating and charming, its final acts are laborious, maudlin and comically depressing. It’s clear Roskam felt like the film needed to veer off in this darker, harrowing direction, but that decision serves no true narrative purpose. It’s like sitting through a four-course meal, and when it’s time for dessert, the waiter brings out a plate of spiders and tells you it’s a tragic metaphor for something or other. It’s a frustrating shame, because Schoenaerts is so utterly captivating in the film’s first half, melding Steve McQueen cool with a stunted manchild’s capacity for emotional expression, the perfect icon for a postmodern caper film. But the second half, designed to give Exarchopoulos more to do, doesn’t serve her character or the story whatsoever.
This is the rare instance where an English language remake could feasibly turn out better than the original, so long as they don’t do anything Roskam and company did after the one-hour mark. Hopefully this is a learning experience for the otherwise talented filmmaker and not the new normal going forward.