Like The Wrestler with horseracing, Clint Bentley’s Jockey gives the life of jockeys insight and soul while showcasing longtime character actor Clifton Collins Jr in a powerhouse lead performance.
Collins stars as Jackson Silva, an aging jockey who has endured decades on the circuit and is nearing the end of his career. He and his trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) survive with subpar horses in subpar races with subpar equipment. When Ruth lucks upon a young racehorse, both Jackson and Ruth recognize the horse’s greatness and what it could mean for their careers.
When young jockey Gabriel (Moisés Arias) arrives on the same circuit claiming to be Jackson’s son, Jackson takes the young man under his wing. With renewed hope for success and looking back on his legacy, Jackson must decide on his future in the sport and what it has all been for.
The “past his prime” athlete/”one last ride” cliche is easy to see, but the filmmakers are much more interested in the minutia of what that really means. Jackson doesn’t see much of a future outside of racing and has to figure out very quickly what that life would actually mean. In addition, his fears of getting hurt on the track were never addressed in his younger age because he thought he would have more time. His seeping fear is what drives him.
The film is staggeringly beautiful. Set primarily in Arizona, cinematographer Adolpho Veloso captures every wisp of sunlight and morning glow against the backdrops of guardrails and palm trees. Mirroring the themes of the film, the pink and orange glow of peaking sunrises or diminishing sunsets show the character’s journies in their opposite directions. Even the simple gathering of a bonfire turns into a visual delight of crackling embers.
Bentley could have easily leaned into the cliches of the story, but he and Collins resist it at every turn. Every opportunity for Collins to be the shouty blowhard you expect him to be, the film surprises you and reels him in. While Jackson is a character who is in denial about his own standing, Collins fully understands who Jackson is. He wears his experience like a shield, but his weathered exterior breaks down that shield into someone more vulnerable.
Collins is in complete control, even if his character is spinning. While almost every other character is looking forward, Jackson is stuck looking back. His career is on the clock and his sheer relief to get the opportunity to ride a winning horse is a show of gratitude and luck. Collins captivates without screaming at the camera to do so. It’s not about being vibrant, it’s about hanging on to the crumbs of success.
Parker is her continually wonderful self as well. Ruth still has that wide-eyed optimism that Jackson long ago abandoned. Her enthusiasm, as well as her belief in Jackson, is a welcome burst of light and energy. Arias has a more difficult character, but just like Collins, he doesn’t overdo it. He wants time and presence; he’s not looking for more than what Jackson can give. Arias operates on the same wavelength as Collins and they share solid chemistry.
Though Jockey treads familiar territory, a mesmerizing performance Clifton Collins Jr sends the film to a higher level. Few films are this graceful with something that could have had much more grime.