The kind of story Sam Peckinpah might have been partial to in his quieter, Junior Bonner mode, Jockey is a little gem about an aging rider whose days on the racing circuit are nearing an end just as a youngster shows up who claims to be his son. The kind of timeless tale that could take place anywhere but is bolstered by its racetrack milieu and a very fine cast, this is a sparely written and beautifully performed piece that under normal circumstances would make the festival rounds prior to a specialty launch but these days will no doubt go straight to the tube.
Among its numerous other attributes, this gorgeously shot indie features a title turn by Clifton Collins Jr. that is simply superb and should provide a serious lift to his career if the film becomes as widely seen as it should. This is the sort of quiet, introspective and original storytelling that is in relatively short supply these days and hopefully will not fall between the cracks in this media-and-civilization-shifting moment.
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Shot predominantly in the very early morning or at twilight, a quiet visual correlative for the hero’s career, this second feature by the writing-directing team of Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar (they take turns directing, with the former formally taking the helm this time) focuses on the fading career of Jackson (Collins), who lives, like so many other jockeys, in a trailer. Like most members of his profession, he’s been banged up and cobbled back together any number of times. He’s also a binge drinker. However you look at it, his days atop a mount are numbered.
All the same, he’s determined to stay in the game, which is centered around the beautiful mountain-backed Turf Paradise track in Phoenix. Alternately gruff and affable, Jackson is nursing himself back to health when he meets a stables newcomer, Gabriel (Moises Arias), a kid who doesn’t wait very long to inform the older man that, according to his mother, Jackson is his father.
Coming out of the blue, this news does not sit well with Jackson, who fumes that it’s not possible and turns his attention to a promising-looking steed shown to him by stables trainer Ruth (a terrific Molly Parker). “I haven’t been on a horse like that in a long while,” he reflects, as he dedicates himself to regaining his racing weight and form for another season.
Jockeys can have longer careers than most athletes, but at Jackson’s age he’s pushing it, and some of his old buds are already on the way out. Visiting one in the hospital, Jackson plainly says that, “You can’t be afraid of death, any more than you can be afraid of being born,” even as he confronts his own expendability.
Perhaps not completely ruling out the possibility that Gabriel could be his son (although there is absolutely no physical resemblance at all), Jackson begins nurturing the kid, giving him much-needed grooming tips in the bargain. On a night out with Ruth, Jackson is struck by a seizure of some kind and ultimately admits that this could be his last season.
This is not the kind of horseracing film that’s filled with stadiums full of people, big bettors and hard-fought runs to the wire. Other than for the frequent nighttime scenes, the film is mainly set in the gorgeous desert dawns, when the jockeys habitually start their training days, or at the equally beautiful end of days, when the men are winding down. The focus is kept intently on the principals as they pursue their unusual workouts, contend with physical problems and philosophize in the traditional laconic Western fashion as they deal with the tough realities of living a Western life centered on animals.
The story is pushed along in a concise, quiet way rather than an insistent one. The writing and the direction deftly balance the combustible and violent with the silences and the meditative, and there is a nice feel of time and life passing even within the relatively short duration of the narrative.
Actual horse racing doesn’t feature too prominently in the action but when it does, the directors and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso have devised a confoundingly original way of shooting it, including an extraordinary sustained 90-second-plus climactic shot (similar to one that has come earlier) that defies immediate comprehension of how it was pulled off.
Jockey is a modest, intimate film, to be sure, but an impressively assured one. It finds a lovely, low-key groove early on and maintains it, and draws performances from its key players that are terrific and true.
Jockey played in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section at Sundance. Running time: 99 minutes.
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