Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam put himself on the map with his brutal debut picture, Bullhead, back in 2011 – a project which also cemented actor Matthias Schoenaerts’ reputation as one of Europe’s most exciting indie stars. After a brief interlude into English-language filmmaking with The Drop, Roskam returns to his native Belgium for Le Fidele (Racer and the Jailbird), his third collaboration with Schoenaerts.
Racer and the Jailbird follows the romance between bank robber Gigi (Schoenaerts) and rally driver, Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Split into several clear acts, Roskam and his fellow writers Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) and Noé Debré explore how Gigi and Bibi’s relationship develops through various circumstantial ups and downs.
Roskam constructs the early stages of Gigi and Bibi’s relationship with a carefree romantic energy. There’s an exciting glamour in the idea of the handsome gangster and the tough racecar driver serving as each other’s physical and intellectual matches, with Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos exuding a magnetic on-screen chemistry. The screenwriters further this excitement with Gigi’s secret adding a layer of unease to this otherwise near-perfect romantic coupling. There is a predictability in the narrative, where we know each of Gigi’s ‘final jobs’ will land him in trouble and break-up the dynamic, yet Roskam’s fast-paced direction ensures this journey is thrilling nonetheless.
As this first act closes with a botched robbery – which Roskam directs with the searing fast paced energy of the brutal action scenes in The Drop and Bullhead – there is a noticeable shift in Racer and the Jailbird’s dynamic. We have new narrative conflict in the distance between Gigi and Bibi which ultimately still works – despite being a dramatic shift from the highly-charged romantic first act. Roskam is at home during these naturalistic prison sequences and by this point we are thoroughly invested in the carefully constructed relationship between our protagonists. A tense ‘prison leave’ sequence stands as one of the film’s most edge of your seat moments, whilst also beginning to twist the initial optimism of this relationship to a Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers style tragedy.
Yet, a further shift in tone in the following act takes the project down the route of tearjerking melodrama which is ultimately one move too far, turning Roskam’s into tragedy-porn. This is when Racer and the Jailbird starts to veer off track, yet, the filmmaker does managed to steer proceedings back on track for a finale that pairs brutality with a poignant final sequence. Even as we reach this shaky narrative twist, we are nonetheless still invested in these characters – Schoenaerts asserts himself as one of the finest actors working – pairing a wide-eyed sensitivity, manly sexuality and animalistic brutality simultaneously. This is a complex, thoroughly engaging turn. Exarchopoulos is similarly impressive, investing us in the tough but naive Bibi – but unfortunately is the victim of the misjudged tearjerker twist in the latter stages of the film.
A sublime performance from Schoenaerts, sharp direction from Roskam, and early narrative success are enough to save Racer and the Jailbird from a misjudged final act.