An aging jockey rides out the final stage of his career.
Directed by Clint Bentley
Starring Clifton Collins Jr, Molly Parker, and Moises Arias
Review by Jon Kissel
That’s a standard middle-aged male arc in film, but any familiar story can get dressed up with technique or with environmental specificity. The latter is present in Bentley’s and Greg Kwedar’s script, which takes into account the hierarchies within horse racing. The owners are at the top, followed by the trainers, followed by the jockeys. Money flows up, shit flows down. The direction of the money means that humanity can’t flow with it, as represented by Molly Parker’s character Ruth. Based on her and Jackson’s body language, they’ve clearly surrendered to physical needs while watching the sun set, but she’s a trainer jumping ranks to become an owner. When it wasn’t her money on the line, she could throw Jackson a favor and put him on a horse even if he wasn’t the right man for the job or if he was shaky in a phase of recovery from this or that injury. When she’s an owner, Ruth can’t be friends in the same way. When Jackson unburdens himself to her about losing control of his hands, she can take it in as a friend and offer him sympathy, but she can’t put him on her horse. The way their relationship shifts and changes over the course of the film adds a layer of cruelty to Jackson’s life, where he can’t even be happy for his friend’s success. That hierarchy bounces back on him and Gabriel, an aspiring jockey who will soon be competing with Jackson for whatever he can get. He’s put all this time in, and he’s getting less comfortable with experience.
Bentley uses his script to show how difficult Jackson’s life is, but he uses his camera to show why he sticks with it. There’s a lot of magic-hour silhouette in Jockey, and a lot of peaceful solitude. If that’s one’s thing, the ice cube dinners might become more tolerable. The magic of being around horses doesn’t hurt either. Jockey wouldn’t be much of a horse racing film without scenes of horse racing. Since HBO’s Luck ended so abruptly, after a series of horse deaths possibly caused by the thrilling but dangerous way that series filmed races, projects have had to be thoughtful about how to avoid the same mistakes. Here, Bentley cheats, putting Collins on a horse (maybe) and filming him in tight close-up so that the sound of a race could be micced in later. To communicate that it’s not going well, someone is given the job of throwing dirt in Collins’ face. The film misses on an opportunity to show the race itself and its power to keep Jackson racing past his prime, but it’s an error borne of care for the animals.
With this opportunity for a leading role that’s received some amount of buzz, Collins doesn’t let it go to waste. He’s a charming lead, well-built for the role with the bearing of a Western stoic hero. He doesn’t play it as a noble sufferer, but as a guy prone to jerky behavior and stubbornness. Jackson’s someone who doesn’t come to vulnerability easily, which makes Ruth’s choices late in the film that much more painful. Jockey knows what it has with Collins, and all make the most of it. This is a strong character study for a guy who deserves better than a couple scenes in a tertiary role. Jockey won’t erase his ‘that guy’ status, but it might get him to the next thing that will. B+