'Jockey': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Jockey
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A burnished, low-key showcase for two exceptional character actors.

In a drama filmed among real-life horse-racing professionals, Clifton Collins Jr. portrays a middle-aged rider facing tough realities, and Molly Parker is the trainer he's worked with for years.

Against-the-odds gambles and the hope for one last chance — these are the dreams that drive horse-racing movies, whether the mood is noir-bleak (The Killing) or feel-good rousing (Seabiscuit). Jockey fits right into that lineage, but what sets it apart is its focus on the working-class realities of the riders, grooms and trainers who travel the smaller circuits, far from the glamour and money of the Triple Crown. Writer-director Clint Bentley is the son of a jockey, and his feel for the milieu and its denizens informs every aspect of the intimate drama. As two long-timers eyeing potential breakthroughs in middle age, Clifton Collins Jr. and Molly Parker deliver beautifully tempered turns, with fine support from Moises Arias in the role of an up-and-comer with a mournful gaze.

The races themselves are backdrop to this trio's longings, setbacks and triumphs; it's more than halfway through the film that we even hear the bugle's call to post. Bentley and his filmmaking partner and co-writer, Greg Kwedar (their previous collaborations include Transpecos, with Kwedar at the helm), are concerned with the hardworking professionals who populate the track's so-called backside: the stables, locker rooms, cafeterias and other shared spaces where jockeys work out and wait and shoot the shit.

In recent years, horses' deaths have tarnished the sport's reputation, a reality that isn't touched on in this modestly scaled tale, with its winningly narrow focus and character-driven '70s sensibility. Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics on the eve of its Sundance bow, Jockey could have a good run, connecting with audiences who appreciate underdog stories and understated filmmaking.

The circumscribed world that Collins' Jackson and Parker's Ruth belong to is an itinerant subculture not unlike that of carnies, making its way around the sort of regional race circuits that aren't featured on network television. Set at a past-its-prime but still active track, the movie was shot at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, giving it a sense of place as strong as its understanding of the characters' camaraderie (and one that brings to mind Jaimy Gordon's novel Lord of Misrule). It's fitting that many scenes take place at dawn or dusk. The Southwestern light of those in-between hours, expressively captured by Adolpho Veloso's sensitive lensing, underscores the aching feeling of transition for its central characters. (The music score by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner, of The National, deepens the poignancy.)

For jockey Jackson and Ruth, the horse trainer he's been working with for years, horses are their everything, all they know and care about. Still, the work has grown routine, and it's been a while since they felt a real fire beneath them. The missing spark arrives in the form of a mare that Ruth is able to buy for a pittance because she's the only one who sees the animal's potential. Jackson recognizes a winner too — "a swan with teeth," he calls her, the kind of champ he'd never thought he'd be worthy of riding.

Ruth's faith in him provokes fear as well as excitement. Jackson has been doing his best to hide, and to avoid dealing with, a worrying tremor in his hand. Getting in shape for the mare's first race, he pushes himself to the edge, increasingly aware of his limitations and the painful reality that his body is breaking down. That awareness is heightened after his good friend and fellow jockey Leo suffers a debilitating injury during a race. Leo is played, to piercing effect, by Logan Cormier, one of the many real jockeys in the cast, which also includes actual grooms, trainers and other track personnel. During Jackson's visit to Leo in the hospital, they speak of things that few people discuss even with those closest to them — death, for starters, and their place in the pecking order. "We're expendable," Leo insists.

In another memorably revealing scene, Jackson participates in a support group of sorts (referred to as "Jockey Church" by the filmmakers). Real jockeys trade their litanies of injuries and commiserate about flimsy financial safety nets. Sitting among them, Collins listens and banters, and the film transcends the divide between professional and nonprofessional actors, achieving the kind of seamless fusion of narrative and documentary that Nomadland strives for but only sporadically achieves.

Complicating and enriching Jackson's newfound hope is his new friendship with Gabriel (Arias), a young jockey who has been shadowing Jackson on the circuit and, when confronted about it by the older man, claims to be his son. In Collins' finely calibrated, utterly organic performance, Jackson's conflicted reaction plays upon his face in the first seconds of receiving the news. Even when he rejects Gabriel's assertion, it's clear that he's weighing the possibility, and the void it might fill. On some level Jackson knows that his powers are waning and his racing days may be numbered, and in fits and starts he embraces the opportunity to pass along what he's learned, to matter to someone.

His efforts are received with touching gratitude. Arias packs a lot of emotion into Gabriel's silences, his cocky outbursts, and especially the moments when the younger man delights in Jackson's mentoring. Whatever their characters' true connection might be, Collins and Arias effortlessly signal, beneath all the inarticulate clumsiness, the yearnings of two men who are fatherless in different ways.

The relationship between Jackson and Ruth might lack that particularly charged angle, but it's no less complex, and Collins and Parker's interplay can be breathtaking in its spontaneity, conveying a shorthand and informality established over decades. The jockey and trainer share the weight of middle age with its ticking clock, but also its sense of possibility and rebirth. After a first flush of success with Ruth's horse, their drunken nightlong celebration, some of it improvised, is the film's high point.

Collins, who worked with Kwedar and Bentley in Transpecos, is a revelation as a working-class athlete who can still cut a youthful silhouette even while staring down mortality. In his every glance, Collins conveys the man's professional pride and his growing vulnerability. Parker, an actor of remarkable range, infuses Ruth with her love of horse-racing, her self-protective smarts, and her awakening to the chance to stake her own claim, to break out of her accustomed role as the middle person between jockeys and high-powered owners.

The handsomely shot production's budget limitations are evident only in the film's two race scenes, which don't show the races themselves. In each case, Bentley keeps the focus tight on Collins' face, a device that packs a punch the first time but doesn't quite avoid self-consciousness the second. Still, that second instance is capped by a scene that captures not just the setting's low-wattage ambience but an epiphany for Jackson. Somewhere between swagger and selflessness, win and lose, Jockey takes the home stretch.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Marfa Peach Co., Contrast Films
Cast: Clifton Collins Jr., Moises Arias, Molly Parker, Logan Cormier, Colleen Hartnett
Director: Clint Bentley
Screenwriters: Clint Bentley, Greg Kwedar
Producer: Nancy Schafer
Executive producers: Larry Kalas, Larry Kelly, Linda and Jon Halbert, Cheryl and Walt Penn, Genevieve and Mark Crozier, Cindy and John Greenwood, Ann Grimes and Jay Old, Benjamin Fuqua and Jordy Wax, Clifton Collins Jr.
Director of photography: Adolpho Veloso
Production designer: Gui Marini
Costume designer: Jessica Wenger
Editor: Parker Laramie
Music: Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner

94 minutes