TIFF Review: ‘Racer and the Jailbird’ Is a Flawed, Stylish Genre Mashup

Film history has given us such memorable pairings as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. For his latest film, Michaël Roskam sought to emulate these dynamic duos with his own take on love, crime, and punishment. The result is “Racer and the Jailbird“, a flawed but ambitious film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Set in Brussels, “Racer and the Jailbird” is the story of two lovers from different worlds. Bibi Delhany (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a racing driver from the upper class. Gigi Vanoirbeek (Matthias Schoenaerts) on the other hand, is an upwardly mobile gangster from a more humble background. Both are confident and self-satisfied individuals. But on one serendipitous day, the two meet at the race track and fall in love. Before long, they are inseparable. But the true nature of Gigi’s line of work threatens to tear them apart, as dangerous secrets come to the fore.

It doesn’t take long before Gigi and Bibi’s bodies are intertwined, as “Racer and the Jailbird” proudly acknowledges the sexiness of its leads. Dressed in stylish form-fitting costumes – and in various states of undress – they look every bit the movie stars that they are. And they have terrific chemistry from their very first scene together.

That chemistry is the driving force of the film that unfortunately gets lost in Roskam’s unfocused direction. Through Gigi’s storyline, the film tries to be a glossy heist thriller with the flashy set pieces to match. Meanwhile, Gigi’s character development is largely left to a few enthralling driving scenes both on and off the track.

But despite the sleek production values, the crime subplot hardly brings anything new or exciting to the table. Furthermore, Gigi’s character sadly devolves into the dreaded supportive wife role, which gets even more disappointingly tragic as the story progresses. And despite Exarchopoulos’ confident swagger behind the wheel, the script seems to have no interest in her racing career.

Ultimately, the script is essentially a love story desperately trying to be a crime thriller. But to confuse matters even further, Roskam’s directing style serves neither tone particularly well. Indeed, it’s not until the final act that Roskam feels in full control. As the film reaches its darkest point, he is finally in his comfort zone of brooding, gritty drama. And in this signature hyper-masculine vein, the final scenes also allow Schoenaarts to fully flex his acting and bodily muscles. Unfortunately, though Roskam and Schoenaarts eventually hit the mark, “Racer and the Jailbird” provides little more than superficial entertainment.

GRADE: (★★½)