You don’t watch a movie like this for plot twists. The vibe is more akin to one of those mid-career, medium-budget Clint Eastwood pictures where he played a run-down veteran of some profession or another who gave it his all and had a few golden moments but was heading into his fifties or sixties realizing that whole time he was just very good, not great, and that the main thing he has to show for all those years of hard work is a job that satisfied him.
There’s also a little touch of the sports film as practiced by Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup“), who liked to focus on guys whose time had passed, and who never much cared who won or lost because he was always more interested in the culture of sports, and in the way athletes related to one another and to the friends, family, and supporting professionals in their little world. We don’t really see any races in this movie—at least not like in other racetrack pictures. There was no budget for that, and they didn’t want to risk injuring their star, so they find inventive ways to make the races feel like internal, emotional events, or ellipses in the story, like when soldiers in a play about war head off to battle before intermission and then come back afterward and you can tell if they won or lost by how they carry themselves.
The film was shot at a working racetrack and mixes non-actors in with pros, most impressively in a lovely scene where racers gather and discuss their injuries. Jackson sits and listens to the others describe the cost of their decision to devote themselves to a job they love and that pays little and takes so much.
This is a drama that prizes journalistic or documentary values, as well as the “epic naturalism” of films by directors like Terrence Malick and Chloe Zhao in which the camera might be as interested in flowing water, a sunset, a flock of birds, or a line of silhouetted horses as in whatever the characters are doing or saying. The score, by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, is in the same vein, using thrumming, humming, percolating soundscape effects to make it seem as if time has compressed or expanded or otherwise ceased to be measurable.
The remarkable cinematography by Adolpho Veloso uses an epic, narrow frame to convey the modesty of the characters’ lives. The shots frame the actors’ reactions and body language in a way that makes them part of the landscape rather than performers strutting upon a real-world stage. We believe that they live and work in this place, and we’ve been invited to sit close and watch them exist.