Filmmaker Clint Bentley makes a tender, visually poetic feature directorial debut with “Jockey,” a closely observed portrait of a man embarking on the downslope of his career. Jackson Silva, played with expressive subtlety by Clifton Collins Jr., has horse racing in his veins: His grandfather was a jockey in Mexico, and his own father rode until he got hurt and “caught the fear.”
For years, Jackson has been a dependable rider for Ruth (Molly Parker), a seasoned but sensitive trainer with whom he has an almost telepathic friendship. When Ruth acquires a horse with promise, she and Jackson see a future they had considered all but foreclosed, where big paydays may not be guaranteed but are not entirely out of the picture.
As “Jockey” opens, Jackson is showing signs of wear. In a scene with his wiry, battle-scarred colleagues, they compare injuries: broken arms, smashed noses, dislocated this, fractured that. Jackson has broken his back at least three times, and he’s been experiencing numbness and tremor on his right side. No sooner is he facing the facts about his diminishing physical capacities than a young rider named Gabriel (Moises Arias) shows up to challenge his elder, professionally and personally.
Bentley, who co-wrote “Jockey” with Greg Kwedar, drew inspiration to make the film from his own father. The film possesses a low-key, lived-in quality that can’t be faked. Admirers of Chloé Zhao’s films – especially “The Rider” and “Nomadland” – will sense a similar gift for lyrical naturalism in “Jockey.” Bentley favors the golden hour, filming his human and equine characters in silhouette haloed by burnished, amber light.
Like Zhao, who often works with non-actors, Bentley casts real-life jockeys in supporting roles, grounding “Jockey” in the mud of the track and the muck of the stalls; he also eschews some of the hoariest cliches of horse race movies. He enlisted brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band the National to compose a delicate musical score blessedly devoid of the pulse-pounding taiko-drum theatrics that dominate the genre.
Race scenes are filmed in counterintuitive close-ups that convey the toughness and punishing physical fortitude it takes to guide a 2,000-pound, four-legged athlete to victory (or not, to which the mud splatters on a character’s face discreetly attest). As the plot takes shape in “Jockey,” it assumes familiar contours. This is one of many “one last gig” dramas that cannily raises the emotional stakes as the final showdown draws near.
The machinery is obvious, and predictable, but Bentley never overplays his hand, and his cast keeps the emotions at a simmer that never gives way to a histrionic boil. Parker and Arias deliver quietly impressive turns as people orbiting Jackson as he copes with his aging body and reflexes. For Collins, who has been a reliable character actor for years – he played murderer Perry Smith in 2005’s “Capote” – “Jockey” is nothing less than a career breakout.
With his melancholy, careworn face and battered physicality, Collins lends Jackson a guarded soulfulness that makes his character simultaneously inscrutable and transparent. “Jockey” gives him just the canvas he has long deserved to prove the kind of mutable, restrained performance of which he’s capable.
Audiences may not be entirely shocked by Jackson’s choices as “Jockey” makes its way to the homestretch, but they’ll nonetheless be surprised with how Collins makes them manifest. Like the horses Jackson has long dreamed of riding, “Jockey” begins by exuding modest promise and winds up being a thoroughbred.
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