The concept of an aging person trying to hang on in their chosen profession is a well-worn tradition in movies, having been applied to everything from actors to police officers to athletes. They’re often paired with a younger person, either a partner or someone whose skill threatens to usurp the older person’s position sooner than the elder may want.
In that way, the film Jockey doesn’t break any new ground. But in setting the story in the under-explored world of horse jockeys and adding a few unique twists, writer/director Clint Bentley manages to bring something new to the table. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Jackson Silva, a highly respected jockey whose body is showing the toll of all the hunching and falls he’s experienced over the years.
Jackson rides for Ruth Wilkes (Molly Parker), with whom he’s had a long professional relationship. Ruth has finally found the horse of both of their dreams, but it comes just as Jackson may be on his last legs. Not only that, but a new jockey, Gabriel (Moises Arias), shows up, claiming to be his son. The confluence of events threatens to be more than Jackson can handle.
Bentley, who’s making his feature film debut, and co-writer Greg Kwedar do a solid job of immersing the audience into what it’s like to be a jockey. That’s partly because they cast a number of real-world jockeys as supporting characters, engaging and talking with Jackson in a way that comes naturally to them. The filmmakers also romanticize the horse racing world to a certain degree, with many of the scenes taking place at either sunrise or sunset, giving a literal golden glow to the story.
On the other hand, they don’t hide the fact that being a jockey is a hard life. Even a successful jockey like Jackson is given only limited credit for a winning horse, and the injuries the riders compile can often be brutal. However, the budget of the film hampers the storytelling somewhat. Racing scenes are few and far between, with ones involving Jackson shown in close-up. This makes it clear he’s not actually riding a horse, although the staging is clever enough to know exactly what’s happening in each race.
The Gabriel-Jackson part of the story had the potential to be significant, but winds up serving as an unnecessary distraction. While it advances Jackson’s acknowledging that his best days are behind him, the actual connection between the two characters is lacking. Gabriel often shows up out of nowhere, offering no clear idea about where he’s been, what he’s been doing, or what his internal thinking is.
Collins is much like his character, a journeyman actor who’s appeared in multiple projects every year since his debut in 1990. This is a rare starring role for him, and he takes full advantage of it, digging in to the grizzled nature of the character. Parker is good foil for him, playing a relatively positive person who knows just what buttons to push. Arias doesn’t have that much to do, but he gets in a few nice scenes.
Jockey does well enough within its limitations, showcasing Collins in a manner that he doesn’t often get to enjoy. The story could have used an extra emotional bump, but otherwise falls right in line with other films about a character figuring out when it’s the right time to hang it up.
Jockey opens on February 1 at AFS Cinema in Austin.