Written by Anna Harrison
Every time you get on a horse, you roll the dice. If it’s a good day, then you listen to each other, you forgive mistakes, you work in tandem; if it’s a bad day, well, you might find yourself with rattled nerves and a few bruises, or in an ambulance, or in a grave. For aging jockey Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) in Clint Bentley’s film “Jockey,” he’s had enough bad days for a lifetime, but while he knows his days are numbered, he refuses to face the fact. He lives in a trailer, he drinks, he smokes, his back has been broken more than once, and his right side occasionally goes numb, but still Jackson gets up before dawn to exercise trainer Ruth’s (Molly Parker) horses, riding and racing until the sun sets and then doing it all again.
Everything in Jackson’s life has a certain familiarity to it: he’s respected around the Arizona race track he calls home, he has a close relationship with Ruth, his friendship with his fellow jockeys—many of whom are played by real jockeys, in the same vein as Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”—is steady and strong. He’s able to ignore his aches and pains and inevitable retirement until a jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias) shows up, claiming to be Jackson’s son.
For being a “horse movie,” there’s remarkably little fanfare about the animals or sport. There’s a slight focus on a new filly Ruth has bought, one which spurs Jackson to get back into top shape and lose extra weight so he can sit light atop the horse. The races are either shown on a grainy TV in the jockey’s locker room or focus only on Jackson’s face, with Collins’ performance (and the amount of dirt hitting his face) letting us know the results. Bentley, the son of a jockey, focuses instead on the riders, avoiding the pageantry and fanfare often associated with racing movies and opting instead for a quieter, more introspective take on the jockeys.
Though initially hostile to Gabriel, Jackson begins to warm up to him, taking him under his wing and getting him a position with Ruth. There are no big revelatory or overly emotional moments between the potential father/son duo, though their relationship—tentative and halting—remains affecting nonetheless. This forms the emotional cornerstone of the film rather than Jackson’s relationship with the filly or his desires to win a certain race, and so while “Jockey” is a “horse movie,” it’s a character study for Jackson, and Collins provides ample material to parse with his stunning performance. Though Arias and Parker put in great performances, Collins wins this particular race by several lengths. Jackson’s not unlike the animals he rides: you have to tell a horse when to stop, as Ruth says, or else they’ll just keep running until they give out, and Jackson keeps pushing himself closer and closer to the edge.
It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking—an aging athlete grapples with his physical decline—but it deals with a corner of the world that typically gets the glossy Hollywood treatment, something that “Jockey” staunchly refuses to do. It treats the athletes and the sport with care, but never glamorizes their situation; they exist on the fringes of the American West, carving out their own existence in the lonely beauty of predawn Arizona racetracks, shot with care by cinematographer Adolpho Veloso. The narrative might be too thin at times, but the mood is rich, and Collins’ performance, all the more powerful for its understatement, makes “Jockey” a decent bet.