‘How many times have you broken your back?” A concerned-looking doctor is asking a jockey. It takes him a few seconds to count. “Three … I think.” The doctor, it turns out, is a vet; the jockey, who’s in his 40s, hasn’t got the cash for medical treatment so slips the racetrack vet a few dollars for an X-ray. It’s a scene typical of this macho-sentimental feature debut from Clint Bentley, which trots a well-trod narrative: the past-his-peak athlete clutching at one last chance of glory before the knacker’s yard. It’s a movie that gets by (and then some) on an intense and focused performance by character actor Clifton Collins Jr, and a truthful-feeling sense of place.
Collins plays the jockey: Jackson Silva is solid and decent, a man of few words and well-respected on the circuit. Racing has taken its toll on his body: he’s numb down one side and has got the shakes in his crop holding hand. Still, Jackson is convinced he’s got a couple of years left in him. He’s worked for some time with trainer Ruth (a warm and generous performance by Molly Parker), who has just bought an exceptional young thoroughbred. Another movie would have required a romance between Jackson and Ruth; but here the pair only have eyes for their horse. (“She’s like a swan with teeth,” Jackson marvels).
Director Bentley is the son of a jockey and shot the movie at a scruffy racetrack in Phoenix, casting real-life jockeys alongside professional actors. And he really gets under the skin of this world, its way of life, rhythms and textures – though I found the subplot involving a young jockey (Moises Arias) sniffing around asking questions about Jackson a bit predictable. However, there’s a brilliant scene where jockeys sit around at the end of the day trading tales of past injuries like army veterans. It says something about Collins’ lived-in performance that his lined, creased face fits right in. He is surely entitled to put his years as a character actor behind him.