Action movies for the soul

Director Michael R. Roskam on his latest film Racer and the Jailbird.


Adèle Exarchopoulos and Matthias Schoenaerts in Racer and the Jailbird

With three features under his belt, Michael R. Roskam has quickly established a particular style — and especially a particular thematic concern. All three of his films deal with criminals (pretty much always portrayed by Matthias Schoenaerts , who has appeared in every film) and they all use animals as a thematic device. Dogs don’t feature as prominently in Racer and the Jailbird as they do in Roskam’s previous film, The Drop, but they do have a strong thematic presence nonetheless. I asked Roskam if he was conscious, while writing, that he was returning to these themes over and over again.

“When you write, you come to a place where you find yourself dealing with issues that not only inspire you but also remind you of the kinds of things you like to explore,” says Roskam. “It also comes from a storytelling tradition. There’s always a tension where power and powerlessness meet. It’s these vibrations that I like to try and turn into a movie. Sometimes, you know, storytelling comes out of themes and metaphors and wondering if something might have an allegorical point. In this case it was inspired, in fact, by real events. I had to deconstruct them and reconstruct them to serve the story that I wanted to tell and to fit the metaphors that I wanted to put in there.”

Schoenaerts stars as Gigi, a Belgian gangster who earns his living robbing banks. Orphaned early in life, Gigi doesn’t know much besides the criminal life — but he knows enough not to bring it up to Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the much younger race car driver that becomes his girlfriend early in Racer and the Jailbird. (When he does eventually bring it up candidly, she brushes it off as a joke.) A sensitive, handsome and faithful guy, Gigi is nevertheless burdened by the lie his life is predicated on, and he decides that his next job is also going to be his last. Bibi, knowing that Gibi is not being fully honest (he gives her some line about being “in the car business), resolves to let him tie up loose ends despite her mistrust of his half-baked lies.

“One of the things that has come back in all my movies is this idea of how powerless we are when we’re fighting the odds,” he says. “Animals, in a way, represent this. There’s an innocence to them and a faithfulness. In fact, the original French title is Le fidèle, which literally translates to The Faithful One. We couldn’t really go with that translation because it had too many connotations. If you look at it, the dog in this movie represents love, it represents fear, it represents a desire for freedom. At the same time, like a dog that was born in a cage, our hero was born in a cage and he wants to get out. And the dog, when it gets out, it doesn’t know what to do. Ultimate freedom is hard to handle. What we like to do is sort of sit in the cage with the door open.”

Racer and the Jailbird represents a quantum leap from Roskam’s last film in terms of complexity — a surprising development considering that the American debut is traditionally considered the move into more technically complex filmmaking. There’s at least one bravura robbery scene in here, not to mention all of the car racing sequences.

“Giving more scope to my work is a kind of natural desire,” says Roskam. “I just love the vibrant dynamics and the energy that cinema can give an audience. Not always emotional, but sometimes almost physical level. I love being able to incorporate it into the story without it seeming, you know, like I was just looking for an excuse to put some action scenes in it. You know, that’s not my style. (laughs) I’m not an action director, but I like to make action movies for the soul. The nature of my action scenes are, I hope, thrilling, they will generate some adrenaline for the audience, but also reflect the emotional status of the character. It’s not so much about whether, say, they’re going to get the money — it’s about what the consequences are going to be. That’s why in all the robbery scenes, I stay with the main character. It’s not a heist movie. I try to make action scenes that also have a dramatic value — not just an entertaining one.”

Another particular facet of Racer and the Jailbird is its Belgian setting — which also translates to most characters in the film moving between French and Flemish, sometimes in the same sentence. I bring up that, although the reality in Quebec is similar, it’s almost unthinkable that a Quebec film would employ the same device.

“It’s a bit of an older culture thing,” says Roskam. “It’s more present in the film with the father character. Years ago, people would say… the equivalent in Quebec would be ‘Je prends le elevator’ or ‘pass me le cendrier.’ It is a real cultural thing in Brussels, but it is dying. It might come back. I see it with youngsters, because they kind of see it as an identification thing. ‘We’re from Brussels, we do both.’ The thing with Brussels is it’s kind of socially, culturally and politically isolated — as if it was in the middle of a battlefield between French and Flemish speakers. It’s where you start to feel it. My son, you know, probably has a lot of French—speaking kids in his Flemish school. I can imagine that in six years or so they’ll start to mix — and probably add some Arabic in there as well! (laughs) He already starts to curse, sometimes, in Arabic! I’m like, what’s that? ‘Oh, it’s Arabic. The Moroccan boys in my class taught me.’ It’s cool, you know. Just don’t curse around a Moroccan family! (laughs)” ■

Racer and the Jailbird opens in theatres on Friday, Nov 17. Watch the trailer here: