Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 24th, 2021
Jockey (Clint Bentley, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
A jockey’s life is hard, especially as the years go by. Plagued by injuries and declining revenue, the members of this rough profession need to pick just the right moment to jump off the horse. Stay in the saddle too long, and your value drops, or you sustain more damage. But the joy of the ride is difficult to abandon. Such is the conflict facing Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr., M.F.A.), an aging champion who can’t quite let go. In Jockey, he fights for his place at the top, where he has been for so long that it’s impossible to imagine anything else. Even when a young man, Gabriel (Five Feet Apart), turns up claiming a close connection, Jackson still remains focused on his own future in the sport. The result is a tense, finely acted study of human stubbornness and perseverance.
Director/co-writer Clint Bentley (co-writer of Transpecos, which also starred Collins) applies a variety of different camera and editing techniques to heighten the cinematic experience, among them a handheld camera, saturated images, increased shutter speed and more, all of which plunge us head-on into the visceral thrill of the race track and its environs. He also populates the frame with many actual jockeys, whose authenticity nicely complements the excellent performances of the professional actors. Arias, so often pushed to excess in his previous work, here surprises with a wonderfully nuanced, low-key turn. Given Collins’ effortless naturalism, such understatement is an absolute requirement, and Arias delivers.
The final component of the mix is Molly Parker (1922), who stars as Ruth, the horse trainer with whom Jackson has long worked. Theirs is an easy rapport, almost romantic but not quite, built on mutual respect. Stlll, she has a job to do, and as much as she may harbor affection for her most reliable partner, if he can’t perform as needed then she’ll have to make the hard call. Given that we see, at the very start, Jackson struggling with a trembling right hand (the one that holds the riding crop), we know there’s trouble ahead. He’s broken his back three times, after all.
Add to that the pending drama brought on by Gabriel’s arrival. He says he’s Jackson’s son, but there’s no way that could be true. Or so Jackson insists. As the film progresses, however, he behaves more and more like a mentor, if not an actual father. Perhaps, if he can’t continue, then Gabriel could be his legacy, charging ahead to further glory. As it turns out, nothing is easy in this gritty tale. But it’s almost always fascinating, even if the dialogue a little too often becomes mired in forced exposition, characters expressing exactly how they feel instead of alluding to it. Still, the flaws of the script only make what works shine even brighter, with Collins’ increasingly lined face front and center. It’s his movie, and all the better for it.