EIFF: ‘Racer and the Jailbird’ Feels Like a Trilogy of Frustration and Disaster

*DISCLAIMER: As this is a difficult film to talk about without delving into the plot, this review contains major spoilers for Racer and the Jailbird. Please read with caution.*

Racer and the Jailbird is a film that is just as difficult to talk about as it is to watch. Featuring two fantastic, but ultimately wasted leads, Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour), the film revolves around a race-car driver and a gangster who fall in love. Director Michaël R. Roskam’s previous film The Drop, is just as chocked full of cinematic tropes as Racer and the Jailbird, but the former, at least, succeeds at being somewhat engaging, while this film feels more enraging as it’s a tonal and storytelling disaster. It feels like a trilogy of cliched shorts with jarring tonal shifts that don’t mesh well together, and features characters that are idiotic and far from interesting.

It’s difficult to discuss this film without addressing each act separately because they really do feel like three separate short films. Each act takes the film in a completely different and bizarre direction in both a tonal and storytelling way. What makes this even worse is that each act is cliched, while adding nothing to let it stand out against anything else besides characters that make decisions that are so frustratingly idiotic that it will drive the viewer insane. Add that to the film’s incredibly slow pace, and it becomes a total slog to sit through.

The first act follows our protagonists, Gigi (Schoenaerts) and Bibi (Exarchopoulos) as they meet and fall in love. To examine it further, the first act’s structure follows that of the traditional “one last job” plotline, so that Gigi can settle down with his newfound love interest, even though he’s been lying to her about what he does this entire time. Yes, recent films still go for this trope, including Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, but Wright’s film is different because he finds ways to make that narrative interesting, from the musical gimmick and the brilliantly crafted action scenes, to the interesting characters and wonderful dynamics. Roskam does not create anything as interesting as that because he’s trying too hard to replicate the slow burn, artistic style of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. However, he fails to make his material as powerful as Drive, because he gives us nothing to latch onto in order to maintain our interest. The protagonists are dull, and we never get much of a chance to watch their relationship blossom, even though the leads are trying their hardest with the material they have. The only intimacy we see is through a series of awkward, meaningless sex scenes that do nothing but further inflate the runtime. Even though this is still an incredibly weak first act, it’s somehow the highlight of the film because it’s the least frustrating of the three.

The film’s second act follows up after Gigi is arrested as a result of the “one last job”, and Bibi is pregnant with their child. This already raises questions of why she’d want to be with someone who has been lying to her about his job for the entirety of their relationship, as she only just found out through the police. One day, on temporary leave to be with his fiance, Gigi kicks somebody’s dog (because dogs are a symbol of fear in this film), leading him to get arrested, again. Later, Roskam throws in a bizarre curveball in revealing that Bibi is terminally ill, which turns the remainder of this act, and the film, into a melodramatic mess. Not only is this frustrating because of how Bibi is still willing to stay with Gigi after making more stupid decisions that lead to his arrest, but it’s even more frustrating because the twist begs us to care for our protagonists, even though we can’t.

The final act follows an elaborate plan to help Gigi escape from prison after he finds out that Bibi has died. This act is the worst of the bunch, but it also had the most potential to truly subvert everything that came before. When Gigi does finally get out of prison, he says that he wanted to be with her. One could easily hope that this could lead to a twist where Bibi’s dying wish was for Gigi to live in a world where she wasn’t there because of his terrible decisions. However, in reality, her final wish is for him to be free because she thought that would truly make him happy. One could argue that he still suffers as he isn’t with his beloved, but at the same time, he’s free because of her. This ultimately ruins any well-deserved karma that should come from a story like this. By now, the film has officially fallen apart in ways that are nowhere near repairable.

As Racer and the Jailbird finally comes to a close, you’re left with a sense of anger that has been slowly brewing since the end of the first act. You’ll think back to those useless, foolish, and aggravating protagonists and how you just wasted 130 minutes putting up with them, you’ll think about the bizarre and inappropriate tonal shifts that are about as jarring as The Book of Henry, and you’ll think about the complete lack of focus. It’s may not be one of the worst films ever made, but it’s definitely a mess worth noting at the end of the year.

Grade: D

(Featured Image: Racer and the Jailbird, Neon)

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