Directed by Clint Bentley.
Starring Clifton Collins Jr., Moisés Arias, Molly Parker, Logan Cormier, Vincent Francia, Danny Garcia, and Marlon St. Julien.
An aging jockey aims for a final championship when a rookie rider arrives claiming to be his son.
Horse riders recount more stories of broken bones and mobility-threatening injuries that anyone can keep track of in director Clint Bentley’s debut narrative feature Jockey (he also co-writes alongside Greg Kwedar). It’s a dangerous sport where the one most in physical jeopardy is lowest on the totem pole (jockeys answer to trainers who answer to owners) and rarely receives many thanks. Chief among them is Jackson Silva (a remarkable Clifton Collins Jr. wearing the character’s inner conflicts all over his body language), a longtime rider who has broken his back three separate times yet chooses to continue racing.
Somewhere between gearing up for what could potentially be his final season (although if you’re familiar with the type of mindset that often goes into jockeying, it’s evident that Jackson will only hang it up once he is paralyzed or something worse) and visiting doctors regarding his worsening body, Jackson also meets Gabriel (Moises Arias turning in some terrific nuanced work), an up-and-coming rider hanging around the Phoenix circuit so that he can drop the bombshell that they are father and son. It’s a reveal that Jackson denounces and claims as implausible, but the information adds to his impending physical crisis of no longer being able to do what he feels born to do. Much like the relentless toll professional wrestling takes on an athlete’s body (as a lifelong fan, that’s what the predicaments of the characters here remind me of most), jockeying is comparable, each proving to be a way of life for the competitor beyond accolades and adoration.
Coupled with twilight cinematography, gorgeous natural lighting, poetic silhouettes, and all-around striking shot competition from Adolpho Veloso, Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance operates in tandem tonally and visually. Firmly stoic and focused, there’s a sense that Jackson was once a force to be reckoned with and someone to idolize. He may be a fading legend on the way out, but Gabriel sees a man to look up to despite his personal failings. As Jackson’s ability continues to slip away, he naturally begins to train Gabriel and reflect on his mistakes in life. Together, they work with trainer Ruth (an excellent Molly Parker calling Jackson out on the pain he hides) as the group comes into possession of a championship-bound horse.
While the heart of the story comes from the bonding and character dynamics between father and son, Jockey occasionally allows glimpses into the lives of other riders, most notably Leo (Logan Cormier), as a prime example of the dangers that await pushing a body to its breaking point. The friendship is also so powerfully drawn that it’s enough to make one wish that more time was spent simply hanging around these other characters. Doubly so, considering that Jockey tries too much with the father-son dynamic during the third act, amounting to new details that feel forced in plot progression and character believability.
Regardless, it’s always clear where Jockey is headed, which for the most part, is executed with superb craftsmanship. The actual racing sequences are breathtaking, zoomed in on the facial expressions of riders, complete with a whiplash effect on the sight of dirt kicking up in their faces. Meanwhile, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner’s score captures Jackson’s waning glory days and emotional crisis. Some late story aspects are slightly overwrought, and certain conversations tend to drag on without holding attention, but the personal and professional challenges Jackson must face are nonetheless riveting.
Clifton Collins Jr. is undeniably moving and capable of generating the necessary empathy for a character within a profession not known for making the wisest life choices. There’s also a great deal of universal appeal in having the ability to engage in one’s life’s passion taken away, and it’s all over Jackson’s weary and storied facial expressions. Stumbles aside, Jockey does also recover for a thrilling finish-line crossing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com