“Jockey” – “It’s just wear and tear.” – Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.)
Jackson is not referring to car brakes or a pair of jeans. He races horses for a living, but he’s not speaking about a particular stallion or mare.
Jackson’s body is breaking down because he – in his 40s or 50s – has been a jockey for decades. A veterinarian takes X-rays of Jackson, and after inspecting the troubling pictures, he recommends that this weathered athlete see a doctor.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Jackson has health insurance.
That’s one problem, but if he saw a physician about his physical issues, a firm medical message might cause him more anguish than the pain itself. So, it’s better to push through it, not complain, continue to embrace his passion, and make some bucks, despite the ongoing corrosion.
Clint Bentley’s dad was a jockey, and this first-time feature-film director presents an absorbing tale – with Collins Jr. delivering a deeply soulful lead performance – in “Jockey”.
During a Sept. 13, 2021 Deadline interview, Bentley says, “I felt like (a jockey’s life) was a rich, interesting world that we hadn’t really seen on film before. For all the horse racing movies, it didn’t seem like they actually showed the life of a jockey and the life on the back side as it truly is.”
Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar feature the day-to-day grind of the sport – but also its beauty – at ground level. We see horses and riders line up in the starting gate and then stomp onto the welcome, oval track. In a movie theatre, the races sound like Bentley and his crew elaborately and gently Scotch-taped tiny microphones on 40 hooves as the elegant creatures sprint and compete to place or show. The film also makes a thoughtful (and probably a practical) choice by isolating Jackson’s face during races, and Collins Jr. clearly illustrates his character’s feelings during a contest and immediately after.
Admittedly, “Jockey” doesn’t feature too many races. The film may include 10 minutes of screen time, tops, of men sitting or riding on ponies during the lean, textured 94-minute runtime.
Most of the story features Jackson engaging in intimate conversations with his few connections and several shots of alone time, simultaneously addressing the tasks of his immediate present while carrying the literal and figurative bumps and bruises of his past. He lives humbly, without needs or the resources to acquire the finer things in life. The script doesn’t deliver too many particulars about Jackson’s history, but he carries deep wells of experience – granted, within the narrow band of racing – that have nestled in his memory and generally remain there via his silence.
Jackson, however, speaks like a cowboy, a fella from an entirely different era, and he fits perfectly into Bentley’s on-screen world. Filmed at Turf Paradise (a Phoenix horse racetrack), Bentley and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso capture the gorgeous desert setting with so many precious, wondrous shots of orange and purple Arizona sunrises and sunsets with tangible, rugged buttes barely cutting into the astonishing skies.
Bentley and Veloso cast spells at times because this 21st-century story sometimes feels like a 19th-century western. In fact, the film includes several silhouettes and even a campfire to add (or pay homage) to the genre, and Aaron and Bryce Danner’s mystical, dazzling, and gentle score nurtures the striking visuals.
At one point, Jackson says – while starring into the sky with a 19-year-old inexperienced upstart named Gabriel (Moises Arias) – something like, “I love this time of day,” and we share this altruistic, appreciative sentiment.
I appreciated “Jockey” at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, but via the “comfort” of my home due to the pandemic. However, the film’s cinematic magic resonated with me even more during my second watch, this time during a theatrical screening. Yes, this is a small, contained indie, but it communicates grand themes about our limited, treasured existence on this everlasting planet. Jackson contemplates and feels the end of his career, but The Sonoran Desert will proudly stand long after he hangs up his riding boots.
Collins Jr. – with his thin frame, expressive and revealing glances and gazes, and matter-of-fact discourse – embodies this old soul, a man who spent decades wrapping himself up in riding because he did know or see anything else. This 51-year-old character actor has embraced dozens of supporting roles in many popular movies and television series, but he shines as a lead. Jackson may be near the end of his career, but “Jockey” should propel Collins Jr.’s to brand-new beginnings of leading roles.
Let’s hope so. Collins Jr. is that good. However, he’s not alone in this production. Molly Parker and Colleen Hartnett offer key supporting performances, and Arias’ Gabriel is instrumental in disrupting Jackson’s solitary routines.
Yes, this old rider suffers from wear and tear, but he doesn’t have to bear it alone.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Clint Bentley
Written by: Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar
Starring: Clifton Collins Jr., Molly Parker, Moises Arias, and Colleen Hartnett
Runtime: 94 minutes
Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics