Movie Review: “The Racer” (2020)

If you haven’t heard of Kieron J. Walsh’s new movie, “The Racer,” you may be forgiven. It had been due to appear at this year’s cancelled SXSW, released in mid-September. With the world the way it is this year, it is all too easy to let things good things like this slip by.

If I was a different writer, I’d finish the previous sentence by saying something akin to, “like a cyclist pulling out of a slipstream in order to pass his domestique.” Happily, I’m not that writer, it’s a terrible metaphor both in verbiage and concept. It almost passes for being clever with this movie being about one aging cyclist whose job it is, as a “domestique,” to help others win, but it also feels a like it’s trying too hard, kind of like an aging cyclist taking drugs and nearly killing himself just so he can keep racing.*

*I know, I ended that sentence in a way I just explained away as being awful. It is awful, isn’t it? That’s why I chose not to go that route initially.

A fictional tale, “The Racer” builds upon the real world 1998 Tour de France, which actually started in Ireland and was plagued by scandal due to drugs and doping. Into this real scenario, Walsh drops the fictional domestique Dominic Chabol (Louis Talpe), a veteran cyclist quite possibly looking at his last Tour. Chabol is a man who literally dreams of winning at least one stage in the Tour, something he has never done even though he’s pushed (or pulled) other riders to victory. This year, his job is to do that for Lupo “Tartare” Marino (Matteo Simoni), and while Chabol isn’t happy about it, when we meet him, he knows his place and is comfortable with just staying on the team.

Walsh’s film, which features a script from Ciaran Cassidy and Walsh (with additional writing by Sean Cook) attempts to walk a fine line between fetishizing the cyclist Chabol and his body, while simultaneously deconstructing the actual work of racing and the drugs Chabol has to take to keep going. There are times when we get glistening shots of Chabol’s physique and another when we are treated to his scars. We are placed right alongside him as he races for glory and as he nearly dies in the middle of the night when his heart rate plummets.

The truly interesting question of the film, and Walsh’s approach to it, is whether the work takes a stance towards Chabol and, if so, just what that stance is. One of the reasons the movie is successful is that this question isn’t easy to answer.

Chabol is, without a doubt, a cheater. There is no attempt to explain this away in a “well, everyone is doing it fashion” even though it is clear that everyone is indeed doing it. Chabol puts a doctor working for the tour, Lynn Brennan (Tara Lee), into incredibly an incredibly awkward position with his attitude, and while the film shows the questionable nature of that action, it also implicates Brennan (as it should).

Throughout, Chabol is a flesh and blood human being. He is just a guy with his own set of troubles. He does good things and he does bad ones. Is he to be admired? Is he to be pitied? Assuredly, there are reasons for both and Talpe is mesmerizing as he gives us this complicated, nuanced, figure.

“The Racer” isn’t a movie which holds one’s hand as it presses forward. It offers, without too much ridiculous exposition, the basics of racing and the concept of a domestique, but it doesn’t sit there and explain how the drugs Chabol is using help him or the advantages gained by blood-doping. It trusts that the viewer is smart enough to glean it all from the context clues. Do not look to this film for an understanding of the Tour de France as a whole or the way the stages work.

Such answers are not strictly relevant to what is being discussed and not present. Walsh sticks with his main concern – what racing does to this one man and those in his orbit.

As for the rest? Team’s masseur, Sonny (Iain Glen), he may be a nice guy and he may be good friends with Chabol, but his cheating ways are not forgiven. Tartare is a prima donna, a man with god given talents who is wholly unworthy of them. The team’s coach, “Viking” (Karl Roden), is heartless and the rookie on the squad, Lionel Dardonne (Ward Kerremans) may be pure at the start, but it is definitely up in the air if he will remain that way. It is an interesting supporting group and Walsh makes the most of them.

The one thing that the film is really down on is professional cycling, or at a minimum, the Tour de France. It shows us that the riders love the sport, but it makes no bones about it being dirty (at least the 1998 Tour). It doesn’t try to explain away the lying or the cheating or the horrific actions. It may fetishize, to an extent, the physiques of the men who we see racing, but not the sport itself.

What we are left with is a complicated, narrow, picture of one man nearing the end of his career and struggling to figure out what to do next once this sport which he loves—and has loved for decades—leaves him behind without an iota of concern. Chabol is a very human protagonist and completely questionable. The movie isn’t always easy to watch and there are moments when one almost wants Walsh to condemn some of the characters, but it is better for taking the high road.

photo credit: Gravitas Ventures

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