At 5-foot-8, Clifton Collins Jr. is not a big actor, but he’s still half a foot taller than your typical jockey. That’s the kind of quibble that lasts for maybe the first five minutes of Clint Bentley’s “Jockey,” by which point, Collins has convinced us that he’s been racing horses for decades. He walks like a jockey; he talks like a jockey; heck, he even rides like a jockey — which is a remarkable transformation for a character actor who’s been waiting far too long for such a shot in the saddle.
“Jockey” gives Collins the role of his career, and he leans into it with all he’s got, delivering the performance of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. In light of all the bad press that horse racing has gotten in recent years — with annual equestrian deaths ranging from 130 to 320 — it’s worth assuring audiences up front that no horses die on- or off-screen in this affecting indie. We’ll make no such promises about the people. As the film opens, it’s clear that Collins’ Jackson is a few races away from being put out to pasture. He’s the best jockey riding at Phoenix’s Turf Paradise, but he’s broken his back at least three times, and lately, he gets seizures that cause the right side of his body to go numb.
Watching Jackson reluctantly absorb a doctor’s advice to quit while he still can, I was reminded of Chloé Zhao’s elegiac Native American rodeo drama “The Rider.” What happens when you tell someone who loves nothing more than horses that he can’t ride? What else is that person supposed to do with his life? But “Jockey” isn’t so much a rehash of those themes as a fresh look at the incredible bond between these powerful animals and the men who maneuver them. We hear about all the risky tricks used to improve a horse’s performance, but what about the tactics these jockeys use to make weight? One more fall, and Jackson could lose the use of his legs.
Just as Jackson is facing the prospect of retirement, two new arrivals appear to complicate his choices. The first is Dido’s Lament, a special horse acquired by his trainer, Ruth (Molly Parker, luminous). She’s an exceptional steed, whom Jackson describes as “the horse I never thought I’d get to ride.” The second is a 19-year-old prodigy named Gabriel (Moisés Arias), who idolizes Jackson and wants to follow in his footsteps. The kid is convinced that Jackson is his father, and as soon as the words come out, we start to see it.
Like Collins, Arias is a striking actor with uncommon features and a kind of wild intensity behind the eyes. (He’s also really short, which makes him ideal casting to play a jockey.) Both have been standout members of many an ensemble, so it’s great to see them elevated to leads and cast opposite one another here.
At first, Jackson is skeptical about the boy’s claims, but the suggestion offers an exciting possibility: Here he is, obliged to step away from the sport, at the same time a potential successor presents himself. If Gabriel’s right, then Jackson could pass the reins to his son, so to speak. After years of being a loner, it’s touching to watch the idea sink in, as a man who’s had such tunnel vision about his goals starts to consider what he may have missed along the way.
“Jockey” provides the kind of parent-child bonding moments that real life doesn’t always allow, but its tone is hardly sentimental. Bentley’s own father was a jockey, and the film serves as both an homage to that career and a clear-eyed and thoroughly unglamorous look at life behind the barns. So many horse racing movies see the sport from the stands, but “Jockey” brings the camera down to ground level, focusing less on the track than on the tack rooms, canteens and ratty trailers where these professionals spend their lives. As in “The Rider,” Bentley weaves documentary detail into an original narrative, creating scenes where fictive characters can interact with genuine equestrians.
He and filmmaking partner Greg Kwedar (“Transpecos”) have an ear for the jargon of this field, and though a good deal of the dialogue may be too particular for audiences to follow, the way Collins, Arias and Parker deliver their lines conveys a sort of authenticity (one reason Collins’ size is so easy to accept). Apart from these three, the rest of the cast are the real deal, members of the racing world into which “Jockey” immerses itself. When they sit around laughing and sharing stories about past injuries, we’re hearing from those who’ve lived it — and while it’s important to have their voices in the film, it takes an actor of Collins’ talent to do the emotional work the role demands.
Gorgeous as DP Adolpho Veloso’s magic-hour cinematography can be, so much of the movie unfolds on the leathered skin of Collins’ face, and so much is said by his eyes alone. There’s the scene at the bar, when Gabriel pulls ahead in a race shown out of focus on the TV behind Jackson, a father’s pride spreading across his features. And there are the two races in which Jackson competes, the camera galloping alongside, trained tight on Collins’ expression, half-hidden by his goggles and helmet. We can’t see the other riders, but in his reaction, we know precisely what happened, and precisely how he feels.
Broken down into its specific story beats, “Jockey” could be seen as a fairly conventional estranged-family drama. As sports movies go, it’s far more radical, showing relatively little interest in the outcome of any particular race. But in either genre, the movie stands apart from — and above — its peers. That’s a testament not only to the performances but also to Bentley’s approach, which begs to be seen on the big screen.
The film’s super-wide aspect ratio gives it a kind of poetic grandeur, while the textures are so rich, you can almost smell them: the sweat, the cigarettes, the manure. And those skies! In the annals of movies about men who must choose the right time to ride off into the sunset, has one ever done such justice to the sunset … or the rider?