Racer and the Jailbird review: Bonnie and Clyde themes abound in this stylish and soulful love affair from the director of The Drop and Bullhead.

Racer and the Jailbird review by Abi Silverthorne.

Pensively told in three continuous chapters — Gino, Bibi, No flowers — this is a classic love story that treads well-worn ground, forgivably so, with richly done cinematography and expert execution.

The set up is familiar: boy meets girl, he from the wrong side of the tracks, she the kind of young, good heart that we, and he, sense will not stay easily within his grasp. When Gino ‘Gigi’ (Schoenaertes), a gangster masquerading as a car tradesman, comes across Benedicte ‘Bibi’ (Exarchopoulos), the current hotshot racing-pilot in competition during a highbrow Automobile function, there is little that can dissuade either of them from their immediate and heady infatuation with one another.

The film wastes no time with the ignition of the romance, barely over the start line before we see Bibi dining like family along with Gino’s rowdy friends (slash ‘coworkers’) and the couple confessing innermost feelings to each other. Despite the scenes of noir violence that follow, bared like a reluctant weight, never far behind wherever Gino goes, these early scenes of the central relationship play almost like an indie romance — vulnerable and true.

However, there is a constant tension between this happiness and Gino’s secret, dark life that inevitably encroaches upon it. Benedicte is not as reticent or as much as a pushover as girlfriends of gangsters tend to be on film; she refuses to play the game, will not sit back, fluttery-eyed and lovestruck in the dark. She demands, constantly, to be let into her partner’s criminal sideline, whilst he is only trying to run further from it, closer to her, the authorities on his heels. It’s an interesting, and upsetting, bridge they come to. Chapter by Chapter, the film journeys further from romantic thriller and closer to tragedy, and when the reckoning does come (along with a solid character twist) it is quiet implosion of their world that truly gets under the skin.

Moments and dialogue that are played as almost saccharine in the first segment are ultimately more poignant that one could ever expect when they return, as tainted memory, once Gino’s past is all caught up. “No flowers”, especially.

Roskam handles the heist action with a deft, brutal touch – perfectly done for fans of that Villeneuve Sicario style and features like The Place Beyond the Pines – and each sub-plotted scene of Gino and his gang is so thrilling there should almost be more of it included, just for sheer fun. The interplay between the long-established group is sharp and funny (Jean-Benoit Ugeux is particularly memorable), and, most importantly, you still care about the characters, all of them in fact, no matter what they do.

The film leans slightly more on Gino as a protagonist, which is fine, for the most part. It almost feels as if we are watching what is effectively a preceding episode of a character’s larger arc – a doomed love story that we sense will be formative for the person he is becoming, whatever side of the law that person will decide to stick to.

Matthias Schoenartes radiates pathos from the set of his eyes outwards, and he and Exarchpolous are a potent combination, two powerhouse screen presences who work well together on a chemical level. However, as has been the case with every project the actress has featured in since Blue is the Warmest Colour, I can’t help but wish she had been given, somehow, even more to do in this film. She is, as ever, a magnetic force, stunning in a once-in-a-generational way. Her ability to be wholly natural and yet wholly charismatic has never diminished, and there are at least some opportunities in this film to see her convey that excruciatingly human intensity: a couple of scenes involving Bibi’s high-speed driving as a way to get out her feelings towards her boyfriend’s constant lies jump out as satisfyingly eviscerating.

The film itself is stronger when it avoids the melodrama that it disappointingly resorts to in the third act, and instead trusts the prowess of the performances and the more restrained drama that serves it so well initially.

Faltering only in the last lap, this is a surefire achievement in directing and acting that does justice to its melancholy love story and its crime thriller elements respectively.

Racer and the Jailbird review by Abi Silverthorne, July 2018.

Racer and the Jailbird is released in Uk cinemas from Friday 13th July 2018.

Racer and the Jailbird