Sundance Film Festival 2021: Jockey (2021)

Time catches up to everyone eventually, when and how that might happen could be up to fate, or it might be up to the individual. Clint Bentley’s sophomore effort, Jockey, is a handsome and elegant character study that finds an aging horse jockey towards the end of his career. Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) was once a truly great jockey, but is to the point where life is trying to tell him to hang it up, walk away. But, he doesn’t know how.

We meet Jackson as Gabriel (Moises Arias), a young man that could be his son, starts hanging around the tracks. Jackson doesn’t have much money and early on he has a veterinarian give him an x-ray and he tells him that he’s broken his back at least three times. His best friend and perhaps a little more than that, Ruth (Molly Parker) runs the stables where he races. She’s concerned for him, but knows he is also the best at what he does.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

So, Jackson is presented with the prospect of a new life while refusing to let go of his old one. Collins Jr., is remarkable in the central role, carrying Jackson softly through the movie. He lets out just enough bite that it’s clear in an earlier life Jackson wasn’t this calm. The other two roles of note from Parker and Arias are both quite good. They are there to support Collins Jr. more than anything and they do it quite well. Parker and Collins Jr. have an extended scene together that is heartbreaking, each leveling to the other’s field.

Horse racing is a foreign world to me. I understand almost nothing and know even less about the behind the scenes. Bentley peers into this world with a keen eye. He constructs his world to be palpable, it’s almost possible to smell the locker rooms and horse stalls as his patient camera observes this world. The men are all trying to keep their weight down. They don’t eat much, but they drink plenty. Their bodies have been worn from years of racing, everyone casually mentions how many bones they have broken. At one point a character goes through a slew of broken bones and concludes by saying, “I’ve never been hurt bad, though.” The movie conveys, but never over explains, what the sport does to someone.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The mental and physical rigors of this world are a beautiful landscape for a film about mortality. Death hangs heavy over every frame of this picture. Perhaps that’s why Adolpho Levoso’s cinematography seems to be burnished with the tinges of magic hour at every moment, creating an ethereal vision of this community.

This is a common story that is told uncommonly well. It breaks no new ground and doesn’t strive to. Bentley’s a patient storyteller and isn’t interested in easy catharsis. He’s got a true way with actors and, if you were to guess early leads for the 2022 Academy Award season, Clifton Collins Jr. would be a smart bet.

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