I’ve never been scared before.
Between the stiff hand and the self-applied electrode therapy in his trailer, hearing the track veterinarian tell Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) he needs to see a human doctor isn’t surprising. Neither is his refusal to heed the warning. Jackson knows that going to the hospital for confirmation will be the final nail in his jockey career’s coffin and he truly believes he has two good years left. Add the prospect of his long-time trainer/friend Ruth (Molly Parker) unveiling a horse she took a gamble on buying that now looks like a bona fide winner and you couldn’t pay him a million dollars to put his injuries on record. To win again would be fun, but doing it with Ruth, together and without oversight? That’s a legacy cementer.
Enter Gabriel Boullait (Moises Arias): a young newcomer cleaning stables, putting in the work, and noticeably following Jackson from race to race. Recognizing the last name, the veteran finally catches Gabe in a local diner to confront him about his intentions only for the kid to drop a bombshell. According to him, Jackson is his father. Suddenly the entire concept of his legacy is thrown for a loop. He denies it, of course. He doesn’t want to believe he’s missed nineteen years without knowing there was someone he might have been able to dissuade from following in his physically crippling shoes, but the possibility eats away at him. Jackson therefore does what he can to help. Gabe is here now, might as well teach him something.
Reminiscent of the cinema verité style of Chloé Zhao‘s The Rider (but with three known acting commodities leading the way), director Clint Bentley brings this uniquely rewarding and punishing world to life through Jockey. He spent his childhood on these tracks while his father rode, so he knows from experience what goes on behind the scenes as riders get hurt, scared, and right back up. He and co-writer Greg Kwedar take us to group therapy meetings where real-life jockeys talk about their hospital stays and their determination to ride again. They show us the camaraderie and competition, the unhealthy exercise practices to drop weight like a high school wrestler, and the growing risk of losing everything in an instant by becoming the expendable piece of the racing equation.
There’s also that infectious drive to keep going, though. Riding is life for these men. They can talk about investing in the future by scoping out yearlings and purchasing potential winners to watch from the sidelines, but none of them actually want to think about that being their fate. As Jackson admits later in the film, however, our minds and our bodies are not the same. No matter how much confidence and willingness you have, going hurt becomes less the gutsy call of a heroic athlete and more a liability that endangers the health of every person and animal in the race. Because Jackson’s arm seizing up on a turn doesn’t just put him on the ground. Any fall for any reason can wipe out the entire field.
Having Gabe there is almost a godsend as a result. Jackson still wants to ride Ruth’s baby to glory, but the distraction of having a workout partner and sponge to absorb the tricks he’s learned from his decades in the sport creates purpose beyond the winner’s circle. It also gets his adrenaline and enthusiasm up too—especially when his closest confidante lands in intensive care. To Jackson this swan song can only be made sweeter if he can hand the reins of his final victory to his son. Introduce Gabe to Ruth, facilitate the transition, and have a built-in reason to stay on-site even when he can no longer mount. But all that still hinges on him getting through without incident. He can’t let anyone discover he’s scared.
You’re talking about people who know him better than himself, though. Ruth isn’t stupid. She’s been studying Jackson’s posture on her horses for years and knows something is up. But he’s earned the benefit of the doubt and he wields it to move forward regardless. Not afraid to make what happens next a cautionary tale, Bentley lets Jackson’s uncertainty and excitement push him to places he’s never been and thus opens the potential to let his vulnerability get the best of him. Maybe that’s sharing too much with Ruth to make her question his ability to keep going. Maybe it’s letting Gabe get too close without knowing for sure if they’re related. It’s that leap of faith that reveals how much they care for each other.
Walking around the track to hear jockeys talking, training, and having fun is great. The cinematography and pacing maintain our investment and the way Bentley allows us to enter this world is with obvious affection. And while Parker and Arias are their usual effective selves, this is Collins Jr.’s rodeo. He’s an actor who’s deserved more leading roles than his career has thus far afforded and he runs with the opportunity to prove it yet again. From the close-up shots of him riding (mirroring sequences with a clean face and mud-covered face to differentiate winning and losing without needing to zoom out is brilliant) to his expressive interactions (angry, sorrowful, and joyous) with those he loves, Collins Jr. enthralls throughout. That final grin says it all.
courtesy of TIFF