“Racer and the Jailbird” has all the makings of an elegant, old-school heist movie: fast cars, romance, high stakes, and beautiful people. The third feature from Belgian genre director Michael Roskum (“Bullhead,” “The Drop”) shows a strong eye for emulating those traditions, while co-stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Matthias Schoenaerts bring a palpable sexual chemistry to the tragic relationship at its center. Yet no matter the sleek direction and skillful performances towing it along, “Racer and the Jailbird” struggles to make much out of its scenario that isn’t already evident from the opening act.
Nevertheless, the movie’s accessible drama holds water for some time, competently establishing the central couple as an appealing cinematic pair. Petite speed racer Bénédicte (Exarchopoulos) wows crowds at a local race track where the beefy Gino (Schoenaerts) finds her after one rousing triumph. He leaves an impression, the way the hyper-masculine Schoenaerts usually does, making eyes at her and dropping innuendo as she bats her eyes in response.
It doesn’t take long for the pair to shed their clothes and engage in a passionate love affair that their peers welcome as they go about their carefree existence. They’re a charming, near-utopian portrait of sexual compatibility, with even their nicknames — “Bibi” and “Gigi” — seemingly conceived to jibe perfectly onscreen. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before that idyllic portrait blows a tire, when it becomes clear that Gino has been hiding his long-standing bank-robbing habit from his lover, and of course he can’t shake the habit before completing one last ill-fated job.
Since his tense quasi-body-horror debut “Bullhead,” Roskum has shown a penchant for slow-building suspense, and that talent remains on display here in a handful of showdowns (aided in part by his usual cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis’ high-contrast lighting, which has as much polish as a glossy studio movie). One of the most compelling sequences finds Bibi speeding up the car in an attempt to get Gino to share the secretive nature of his lifestyle, but ultimately the truth comes out under far messier circumstances.
It’s there that the screenplay, co-written by Roskum, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré, takes a sharp turn into less appealing territory. Bibi, a seemingly sharp-minded, individualistic young woman, becomes a kind of martyr for the jailed Gigi as she struggles to keep their future intact while he festers behind bars. If you thought this domestic turn set the stage of a con job in the grand tradition of “The Sting,” you’re a few steps ahead of this straightforward drama’s meandering second half.
Fortunately, there’s much to admire about the star-crossed lovers and the passion that keeps them entangled in dire circumstances. Schoenaerts’ frantic gaze echoes the kind of virile softies he’s played in the likes of “Rust and Bone,” even as his motives are harder to parse once the movie drifts into its murky final stretch. Exarchopoulos finally scores the kind of fierce, driven role that builds on the potential she first displayed with her iconic “Blue Is the Warmest Color” turn, though the movie forces her into a subservient role as the couple’s romance continues into the later scenes, straining credibility to such a frustrating degree that it begs for a redemptive payoff to make the 130-minute running time worth the investment.
No such luck. “Racer and the Jailbird” speeds along at an engaging clip, but never overcomes the fundamental simplicity of its plot. The characters’ main conflicts — between the prospects of a happy life together and the appeal of a criminal solution to their problems — doesn’t push beyond the bluntest components taken for granted from the moment they fall in love. Attempting to explain his crew’s attraction to robberies, Gigi argues that it “keeps us alive, a bit like you and your car racing,” in case viewers hadn’t uncovered the parallel for themselves yet. Spelling out its troubles each step of the way, “Racer and the Jailbird” moves forward at a terrific clip, but like the most obvious visual metaphor of the race track that opens up, the movie’s stuck in a constant loop.
“Racer and the Jailbird” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Neon will release it in the U.S. in 2018.