The story of a worn-out athlete reckoning with the end is one seen throughout sports cinema; from The Natural to The Wrestler. And it’s Jockey that treads such ground, as we see our protagonist grapple with the physical needs and bodily consequences of years of injuries sustained from falling off the horse, in multiple senses of the word. Director Clint Bentley’s engaging drama wants to evoke the exhausted, mature atmosphere of the great postmodern westerns, and his film mostly succeeds, wrapping itself with a melancholic coat of honesty.
The film opens with Jackson (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who’s a depleted jockey trying to throw himself back into the ring for one final go at a title. But that’s a complicated task with his withering health, tendency to heavily drink and smoke, and concern from his longtime trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) over whether or not it’s safe for him to ride anymore. But she’s acquired a star of a horse, and he’s determined to win one last championship as a team; even though where his ambition is pointing towards remains unclear.
But there’s also a on-the-rise rookie rider, Gabriel (Moises Arias), who claims that Jackson is his father from a long ago relationship. Jackson finds such a claim impossible, but he also knows that his rocky past could contain a multitude of present-day repercussions. But whether or not Gabriel is actually related doesn’t really matter, as Bentley takes the rest of the movie to untangle the ripples of their bond. Bentley and Greg Kwedar’s screenplay adeptly charts the course of their relationship, as Jackson clearly sees nuggets of himself through this young man, even if he’s not sure what they are yet. Bentley tackles with a cinema vérité sensibility, immersed in the subculture it presents, having plenty of nonprofessional actors, casting actual jockeys for such roles. As a feature debut, Jockey is confidently assembled around aesthetic naturalism, with cinematographer Adolpho Veloso filming a vast majority of scenes during magic hour across its Arizona racetracks and landscapes.
Jockey also, admirably, is light on big dramatic incidents, instead focusing on relationships and the mood of its setting. Even when the film flirts with something melodramatic, Bentley turns things away to something more contemplative, as Jackson battles against his bodily expiration date. One of the more endearing aspects about this film is that the relationship between Jackson and Ruth never turning romantic, even if the possibility is suggested. Ruth controls so much of Jackson’s quests, and Parker perceptively conveys the mixed feelings her character feels about propping up a man falling off the edge. Arias, meanwhile, conveys Gabriel as a lost young man looking for answers and awashed with uncertainty; moving ahead in life with a hope for a home. It’s touchingly tender.
Collins gets the meatiest role of them all, as a horse racer whose persistence is the death of him. Physically, Collins slips into Jackson’s pain, with his gaunt cheeks and wary eyes he’s stuck in a perpetual lurch when he’s not on the track; with the horrors of his past looming over and through him. The performance is a deeply lived-in one where a lifetime of pain and sadness is plunged into it. With sadness exuding, Jockey doesn’t clearly lay out the road ahead for Jackson, but it does show a future, even when outright redemption remains elusive. It may be familiar from a broad narrative standpoint, but Jockey reverberates in its naturalistic world-weariness, becoming a quite involving drama of knowing truths.
Jockey premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film later this year.