Jockey Synopsis: As Jackson (Clifton Curtis Jr.), an aging jockey aims for a final championship run, a rookie rider arrives claiming to be his son.
Sports movies’ triumphant tonality often embrace a confectionary reality for audiences to get lost in. While the agreeable pleasantness has its own charms, it’s the efforts that dig under the surface of a sport’s superficial elements that truly leave an impact. Writer/director Clint Bentley’s assured debut Jockey effectively fits in that latter category. His effort offers an authentic and vulnerable exploration of the athletes at the bottom of the horse racing ecosystem.
In the wrong hands, familiar story devices stagnate as tired cliches. Under Bentley and co-writers Greg Kwedar’s meditative direction, Jackson’s conflict to endure in his waning career registers with a certain timelessness. Bentley exercises his personal experiences within the horse racing industry to construct a lively sense of place. Even in a business beset with life-changing injuries and a revolving door of hirees (jockeys are treated with a careless abandon, often dumped whenever they begin to slip up), a wholesome community resonates beneath the jockey’s hardened presence.
Some of the best frames feature Jackson and his peers discussing their painful career crossroads, reflecting on the years of wear-and-tear with nostalgia and fear for what’s to come next (I love Bentley’s choice to surround his small cast with a plethora of real-life jockeys). Bentley skillfully allows audiences to bask in his lived-in setting, employing assured visual choices to create a meditative tonality. His thoughtful mixture of intimate framing and free-flowing movements evokes the character’s weighty emotions without relying on contrived dialogue to spell things out. Bentley’s best work comes in the form of quietly composed long shots, which emotionally meander with Jackson’s vibrant struggles.
Bentley’s visceral strengths come to life through the insular performance work. I know it’s early in the year, but Clifton Collins Jr. may have already delivered the year’s best performance as the wry veteran Jackson. Collins Jr. brilliantly highlights the character’s long-standing fatigue through nuanced expressions and a sly sense of humor. Jackson is not the more expressive man, but it’s what Collins is able to say without words that often leaves a lasting impact. Moises Arias and Molly Parker are equally strong in their supporting performances, with Parker highlighting some of the film’s rawest frames as Jackson’s longtime boss.
Jockey rarely misses a beat, with Bentley’s finite observations on horse racing culture speaking towards the stark trajectory of the American experience.
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