‘Jockey’ a small but strong movie about a small but strong athlete
Everything feels real in the drama starring Clifton Collins Jr., just right as a veteran rider taking a risk by getting back in the saddle.
When we talk about the best overall athletes in the world, we think of basketball players and gymnasts, tennis greats and baseball unicorns such as Shohei Ohtani, but you rarely if ever hear jockeys included in the conversation — yet more than one study, including one from Los Angeles exercise physiologists and physicians about a decade ago, has found jockeys might be the most impressive athletes of all, pound for pound.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Clint Bentley and written by Bentley and Greg Kwedar. Rated R (for language). Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and AMC River East.
At the Kentucky Derby, jockeys with a weight limit of 126 pounds must be able to control horses that weigh more than 1,000 pounds and are racing at speeds over 35 mph. It’s an incredibly grueling occupation that results in a myriad of injuries — and creates a true brother- and sisterhood among the tough, hardscrabble, gritty members of the extended jockey community.
Director and co-writer Clint Bentley’s sun-dappled, beautifully photographed, rough-and-tumble backstretch drama “Jockey” gets the rollercoaster life and often tough times of the jockey and the horse racing world just right. The veteran character actor Clifton Collins Jr. (“Honeyboy,” “Traffic,” “The Last Castle”) gets a chance to carry a film as the lead and delivers a beautifully calibrated, career-defining performance as a talented but aging, broken-down jockey who comes racing around the turn with one last chance at a mount on a potentially great horse — and a first chance to connect with a young jockey who might be his son. This is the kind of indie film we’d often see in the early 1970s, filled with quietly effective performances, a deliberately paced and utterly natural storyline, and an authentic, docudrama feel. Every frame has a lived-in, real feel.
Filmed at Turf Paradise racetrack in Phoenix, “Jockey” spends most of its time in the stables, the tack rooms, the mobile homes, the pre-dawn track and the local bars populated by the likes of Collins’ Jackson, who is the best jockey at the track and has enjoyed a long and relatively successful working relationship (and close friendship) with a veteran trainer named Ruth (the always terrific Molly Parker), who has purchased a promising thoroughbred called Dido’s Lament with her own money and believes this could be a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Even though Jackson has broken his back three times and is in a constant struggle to maintain weight without losing the strength necessary to compete, Ruth says the horse is his to ride. (What Ruth doesn’t know is Jackson’s right hand is beginning to shake and he sometimes loses all feeling on his right side, and a doctor has told him he needs to stop riding. Now.)
In the meantime, Jackson has struck up a connection with Gabriel (Moises Arias), a promising young jockey who is convinced Jackson is his father, though Jackson isn’t sure the math adds up. Nevertheless, Jackson takes Gabriel under his wing, leading to some of the loveliest and most touching sequences in the film. Jackson is an amiable but closed-off sort who hasn’t lived much life outside the track, and in Gabriel he sees an opportunity to expand his world, to impart his wisdom, to leave some kind of legacy behind.
Director Bentley and his cinematographer Adolpho Veloso frequently linger on closeups of the wonderfully expressive faces of Collins, Parker and Arias; the racing sequences are shot almost exclusively in tight focus on Jackson’s face as he bobs up and down on his mounts, and we can tell the result by the dirt kicking into his face (which obviously means he’s behind at least one horse) or the look of determination and then pure pride and satisfaction if he has finished first. “Jockey” is filled with scenes that ring true, whether it’s Jackson and Ruth getting smashed and skirting the idea of romance, or a sequence in which Jackson trades injury stories with a roomful of colleagues (all played by real-life jockeys). This is a time-honored story of a world-weary man who knows he’ll be riding off into the sunset sooner rather than later, and only hopes he’ll be able to do it on his own terms.