Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases the film in theaters on Friday, December 31.
Mickey Rourke’s worn-out griping in “The Wrestler” that he’s a “broken-down piece of meat” might put you somewhat in the headspace of the character that Clifton Collins, Jr. plays in “Jockey.” He’s a, as the title promises, jockey, but at the end of his tether, and grappling with the bodily consequences of years of injuries sustained from falling off the horse both proverbial and literal, and trying to get back up on it one more time. Director Clint Bentley’s immersive drama wants to evoke the kind of exhausted, world-weary atmosphere conjured by postmodern westerns like “Hud,” and the film mostly succeeds, even if it tends to veer closer toward the heartwarming in place of harder, grittier truths.
Collins, whose grizzled features in this film reflect a lifetime of pain and sadness, plays Jackson, a depleted jockey trying to throw himself back into the ring for one final championship. But that’s complicated by his withering health, tendency to chain-smoke and binge-drink, and concern from his longtime trainer Ruth (a predictably fabulous Molly Parker) over whether or not it’s safe to ride. But she’s acquired a star of a horse, and he’s determined to win one last title on her behalf — though what, and to whom, he is trying to prove remains ambiguous.
Also throwing a circumstantial wrench in things is the unexpected drop-in of a rookie rider, Gabriel (Moises Arias), who says he’s Jackson’s son from a long ago broken relationship. Jackson says that’s impossible, but he’s also probably blearily staring down a well of splintered relationships, any of which could have easily produced a child. Whether or not Gabriel is actually his kin becomes a matter of no import, as the remainder of the movie focuses on untangling what their emerging bond awakens in Jackson. Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar’s screenplay deftly, and warmly, charts the course of their relationship across training sessions Jackson engages in with Gabriel. He clearly sees something of himself in this young man, even if he doesn’t know what it is yet.
“Jockey” has a vérité texture due to the fact that the filmmakers immersed themselves in a real racetrack in Arizona, casting actual jockeys in peripheral roles. Bentley’s feature debut is confidently assembled, with the world captured by cinematographer Adolpho Veloso seeming to exist entirely in that magic hour that casts ghostly rays of sunlight across the desert plain. Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, the brothers behind indie band The National, contribute an atmospheric score that lends a sense of longing and regret to the air.
Either refreshingly or frustratingly, for a redemption movie, “Jockey” is light on dramatic incident. A visit by Jackson to the long-lost woman with whom he potentially could’ve fathered Gabriel adds a sprinkling of soap operatics, but doesn’t feel forced. Most endearing about the film is the easy, breezy bond between Jackson and Ruth that never quite tips into romantic territory, but is always suggestive of that possibility. Ruth is both the architect and enabler of Jackson’s quest for absolution — and what demons exactly he’s trying to put to rest are never fully known — and Parker palpably conveys the ambivalence her character feels about propping up a man who is barely holding it together. “You gotta tell a horse when it’s time to stop,” she tells him. Arias, meanwhile, as Gabriel, exhibits a darker dimension than shown in comedies like “Nacho Libre” and “The King of Staten Island,” and commits to embody his character’s constant search for a father figure.
Collins, also an executive producer here, gets possibly his meatiest role ever as a horse racer whose tenacity is also his Achilles’ heel. Physically, Collins slips into Jackson’s pain, stuck in a perpetual lurch when he’s not on the racetrack. The performance is a deeply lived one, not only in terms of what appears to be the actor’s all-in plunge into what actually goes into horse-racing, but also because of the sadness Jackson constantly seems to emanate. “Jockey” doesn’t map out exactly what’s in store for Jackson by the end of it all, but it does show he has a path forward, even when redemption remains that elusive thing ahead.
“Jockey” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.