Clint Bentley’s debut feature film is an elegiac tribute to the lonely, dangerous and tenuous life of a jockey. Filmed in “magic hour” glow, with almost every scene a beautifully backlit postcard, “Jockey” makes a fine star vehicle for one of the finest character actors working today, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Collins, who first gained notice in “Capote” and has made the filmic worlds of scores of films more credible (“Sunshine Cleaning” in particular) simply by virtue of his unfussy, understated, mostly working-class performances.
Collins plays Jackson Silva, a 50something, high-mileage jockey winding down his riding days in Phoenix. He’s got a trainer (Molly Parker, perfectly-cast) he gets on with, a core of fellow jockeys he respects and even likes.
But the end is closer than he’d like to think, and any hopes he has of riding trainer Ruth’s new pride-and-job filly to glory might not just depend on him “making weight.” He’s also got to consider how long he puts off going to a real doctor, and not the “horse doctor” who takes x-rays, shakes his head and listens for explanation of the “damage” he sees — three broken back injuries, for starters.
Jackson isn’t the first in his family to ride, and in when he finally has a chat with this new rider who seems to turn up at every track where he works, Jackson realizes he might not be the last. Gabe (Moises Arias of “King of Staten Island”) finally admits that he’s his son, not that Jackson acknowledges that.
“Jockey” is about that dance around accepting the kid and accepting the inevitable, a sentimental melodrama about a rider in winter taking stock of what his life has amounted to and may yet amount to, if his various long shots pay out.
Jackson talks up Gabe for a job by praising his “light hands” at the reins. That’s also the perfect phrase to describe Collins as an actor. Ruth asks Jackson about her horse the first time he takes her for a test-ride.
“She’s like a swan with teeth.” Collins lands that description so lightly it almost slips by you, the elegance he endows it with is that understated. “Been waiting a long time for a horse like this” could have been left unstated, but as it’s in the script, Collins treads easily over that, too.
I’m often struck by the ways Collin neatly settles into whatever milieu his character’s supposed to inhabit. Park him in a scene with real jockeys, and he does exactly what he needs to in order to not stand out as “the actor” in their midst. Collins and Bentley cede a chunk of this film’s heart to another even-more battered rider, “Leo.” He’s given a lovely pathos by jockey and ex-con Logan Cormier.
Collins just sits in a hospital room set as Cormier gives us the “not afraid of dyin’, afraid of not bein’ able to ride” speech, a scene of simple mourning carried off by men too proud to let us see the grief.
When he wasn’t nagging his director of photography (Adolpho Veloso) to make sure this diner booth, that trailer kitchen, stable stall or moment by the rail at Phoenix’s Turf Paradise track is framed in a backlit glow, Bentley mostly stays out of the way of his actors and lets the good things happen.
This is an auspicious debut, another horses and the men broken by riding them story that makes a fine companion piece to Chloe Zhao’s pre-“Nomadland” classic, “The Rider,” about a crippled rodeo rider.
In a just world, there’d be awards attention for Collins’ latest perfectly-modulated performance. Even if there isn’t, it’s a grand thing when you give somebody who always gives the “star” credibility, merely by his or her presence in support, a moment in the spotlight. What’s even grander is what Collins does with it.
Rating: R, language (profanity)
Cast: Clifton Collins, Jr., Molly Parker, Logan Cormier and Moises Arias.
Credits: Directed by Clint Bentley, scripted by Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:34