(2021) Sports Drama (Sony Classics) Clifton Collins Jr., Logan Cormier, Vincent Francia, Molly Parker, Marlon St. Julien, Moises Arias, Danny Garcia, Ryan Barber, Martin Bourdieu, Aki Kato, Richard Lull, Scott Stevens, Carl “The Truth” Williams, Michael Ybarra, Joe Johnson, Daillon Luker, Oscar Quiroz, John Shumaker, Willie Whitehouse, Stacey Nottingham, Colleen Hartnett. Directed by Clint Bentley
They call horse racing the sport of kings, and there is an intense beauty to it; the overwhelming majesty of the horses, the colorful silks of their riders, the pounding hoofs kicking up clods of dirt, the intensity of competition. But not every race is the Kentucky Derby; not every jockey wins the race.
Jackson Silva (Collins) has had a storied career, but he is reaching the end of the line, and he knows it. His battered body, mauled in falls off of his mounts, has begun to manifest some disturbing symptoms, ranging from hand tremors to outright seizures. His doctor – well, the vet at the local race track in Phoenix where he plies his trade – urges him to retire, but Jackson isn’t about to do that, when there is one more championship to win, and the trainer he works with, Ruth (Parker), has just the horse that might get him that last ring.
But onto the scene comes Gabriel (Arias), a brash young man with talent by the bucket load. He also claims to be Jackson’s son. At first, he doesn’t believe it but as he watches the boy ride, he realizes that the kid could well be the legacy he wants to leave behind. He takes Gabriel under his wing as a mentor, but time is not his friend and as his condition worsens that last championship is tantalizingly close – but just out of reach. Can he urge his mount forward just a little faster to catch that brass ring?
Jockey is both a conventional sports drama and an unconventional one; it carries many of the same beats as traditional sports dramas do, and relies on some of the tropes, but it is unconventional in the way that the film is shot and in that Bentley doesn’t seem overly concerned with the outcomes of the few races he does show – most out of focus on a TV screen in a bar. The only way we can tell who won or lost the race is by Collins’ facial expression.
Speaking of Collins, his name may not be familiar but his face should be. He’s a veteran character actor who’s been in the business since the Nineties, generally playing supporting roles. This is a rare opportunity for him to play the lead, and he runs with it, turning in the performance that he will undoubtedly be remembered for. Jackson isn’t necessarily a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve, but he does wear them in his eyes and much of Collins’ acting is done there. He is sometimes mournful, sometimes joyful, often frustrated but rarely uninteresting.
Bentley and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso have a good eye, but unfortunately, they are more interested in getting unusual shots. There are tons of gorgeous panoramas at dawn and dusk, with the sun low or gone from the Arizona sky. Cinematographers call this the “golden hour” and it makes for some beautiful pictures, but they use it to distraction. They also spend a lot of time in close up on Collins’ face and that, in itself, is not a bad thing, but there is a tendency to shoot from unusual angles above and below the actors’ head, which also gets distracting. I’m not sure if the filmmakers didn’t have faith in the script that they felt they had to jazz it up with the low-light close-ups.
Which is a shame because there is a lot to like about the movie; the camaraderie among the jockeys in the tack room as they sit around the card table, shooting the breeze, lamenting about their injuries, laughing about past glories and commiserating over the state of the business. The filmmakers used a lot of actual equestrians and persons associated with the horse racing world, and that authenticity is evident throughout the film. When they get together, talking about what’s going on in their lives, those scenes are absolutely a delight, some of the best in the film.
This is probably not a film for everybody; it has a fairly languid pace, and there’s really no antagonist in the cast to root against. It’s kind of a slice of life sports drama, one in which tough people weather tough days and nights at the track on the backs of beautiful animals, and the love between horse and rider is clearly felt, and it is a real element, not something canned like many a Hollywood horse racing film. It’s worth taking a chance on. The movie made a qualifying Oscar run at the end of December, and is opening in selected markets on February 4th, expanding to a wider release the following week.
REASONS TO SEE: Collins gives a career-defining performance. There’s an authenticity to the environment.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s an overreliance on close-ups, silhouettes and low-light dusk shots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Bentley’s father was a jockey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lean on Pete
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 7 Prisoners