TIFF Review: 'Racer and the Jailbird'

Racer and the Jailbird
(Belgium/France, 130 min.)
Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, Writ. Thomas S. Bidegain, Noé Debré, Michaël R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere
Courtesy of TIFF
Dangerous curves ahead: Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos bring the heat in Racer and the Jailbird. This thrilling drama from Michael R. Roskam (The Drop) is Belgium's submission to this year's Best Foreign Language Film race and it's a bold choice for voters with an inclination for something deep and dark. Racer and the Jailbird is a tale of ill-fated romance that probes our taste for danger and the thrill of living on the edge. This stylish and sexy potboiler puts its foot on the pedal and doesn't gear down for 130 minutes. 

Racer and the Jailbird offers a unique three-act structure that keeps the audience guessing as its tale shifts perspectives and leaps across time periods. Part 1, “Gigi,” makes viewers accomplices to the jailbird’s deeds as it favours the perspective of Schoenaerts’s Gigi, a suave crook, bank robber, and high-end gangster. He moves onto Bibi (Exarchopoulos) like a smooth operator when her skills on the motorway get him all revved up. Their relationship moves very quickly as passion consumers these two strangers and the physical intimacy, or magnetic pull, between them doesn’t leave much room for talking and getting to know one another.

Bibi might not know what Gigi does for a living aside from his casual explanation that he’s in the import/export business (which, for anyone who’s seen many crime movies, is often code for “crook.”) Gigi never lets her see his apartment and some of his out of town trips are oddly timed with high profile robberies that she discovers on the news. The thrill of danger is pretty hot, though, and the dark unknown persona to the man Bibi loves makes Gigi even more attractive. At the same time, Gigi isn’t too stupid to grasp that a life of crime has only two endings: death or jail. Neither one includes Bibi unless they go out like Bonnie and Clyde.

When a heist goes spectacularly bad, though, the film puts the viewers in the passenger seat alongside the racer as she takes hold of the wheel and discovers a new the crime underworld. The high of crime grips in “Bibi” as the racecar driver considers a retirement of her own. She trades one adrenaline rush for another as Gigi’s criminality catches up with her family. Taking a cue from her lover’s playbook, Bibi steps out of the role of the ganger’s moll to play the badass.

The racer and the jailbird move quickly and the film flies just as fast as its titular characters do. Roskam keeps the film at a dangerous and adrenaline-pumping pace and never once taps the breaks to give the audience a breather. Jailbird drives straight into the underbelly of Belgium's criminal landscape but keeps its focus as Gigi and Bibi dodge obstacles in their path such as gun-wielding goons and teeth-gnashing dogs. Every trickle of blood and each bead of sweat comes with the territory for these daredevil lovebirds who thrive on the edge.

Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos are one hot sexy couple and their screen chemistry is like two exposed wires that come together with a shock. Exarchopoulos delivers on the promise of her breakthrough work in Blue is the Warmest Color with a performance of intense heat and strength--although to praise more about her work would be to spoil too much of the film. Schoenaerts gives his best performance since Rust and Bone in his third outing with Roskam after Bullhead and The Drop. There's a hint of Schoenaerts's character Ali from the searing Jacques Audiard drama with how he feeds his drive and energy by taking punches and growing from the pain. There's actually a lot of Rust and Bone both thematically and stylistically in Racer and the Jailbird with this tragic two-handed romance of tortured souls on the run. The intense physicality of the film recalls Rust and Bone’s racing pulse.

Roskam ensures that the viewer leaves Racer and the Jailbird feeling the same rush of adrenaline that keeps the hearts of these two lovebirds racing.  The film ends with a bravura long take shot from the vantage point of a Porsche's undercarriage as it barrels around the city. The camera glides disastrously close to the pavement as the driver revs up the speed and careens around the city, evading traffic and running lights with a kamikaze death wish.  This exhilarating moment ensures one's heart is racing waiting in suspense as the car careens around roundabouts and busy intersections towards one of the two fates that Gigi knows awaits them.  What a rush!

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info.