It isn’t often that a person who is 50+ years old and has appeared in over 90 feature films and TV shows delivers what could be considered a “breakthrough performance,” but that is indeed the case with Clifton Collins Jr.. in “Jockey.”
The third generation member of a Mexican-German-American acting family, Collins has shown up in many high profile projects such as “Grand Canyon,” “Traffic,” “Star Trek” (2009), “Pacific Rim,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and last year’s “Nightmare Alley,” usually as a generic supporting villain with minimal or no dialogue. The closest Collins has ever gotten to widespread recognition was playing real-life murderer Perry Smith in “Capote” opposite Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Horse Jockeying Is a Dangerous Profession
In “Jockey” Collins takes the lead as Jackson Silva, a rider who has been around the track more than a few times with little to show for it. Like many professional jockeys, Jackson has been involved in multiple accidents resulting in nerve damage, heart problems, and dozens of broken bones. Jackson “thinks” he’s broken his back three times.
Jackson’s career would have been over years ago, yet he remains active and barely scratches out a living thanks to Ruth (Molly Parker), a borderline saintly owner and trainer, who thinks more with her heart than her head. Ruth’s relationship with Jackson is deeper than “employer-employee” and it’s made clear early on why their friendship has never strayed into romance; just one of many deadly clichés wisely avoided by co-writers Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley (directing his first feature).
Not Really a Horse-Centric Story
Unlike almost every film centered around horses and/or racing (“National Velvet,” “Black Beauty,” “War Horse,” “Seabiscuit,” “Hidalgo,” “Secretariat”), the filmmakers take a huge gamble by including next to no original race scenes. The only traditional racing shown is on televisions being watched by the characters. In lieu of what we’ve been accustomed to in this type of film, Bentley includes just a few passages showing only Jackson from the shoulders up during his races. Unorthodox to be sure, but also highly personal and effective, especially in the last one presented near the end of the movie.
What the filmmakers might lack in wide-audience appeal and an A to B narrative is more than made up for with rich character development and interpersonal relationships. In addition to the in-flux dynamic between Jackson and Ruth, Kwedar and Bentley throw a wild card into the mix in the form of Gabriel (Moises Arias-“Ender’s Game,” “The King of Staten Island”).
A younger jockey trying to get established, Gabriel seeks the company and advice of Jackson who, while initially flattered, suspects alternative motives and presses him on it. Without much hesitancy, Gabriel sheepishly tells Jackson that he is his son. As this is an event which takes place halfway through the first act, it’s clear the writers aren’t intending it as a huge twist or plot reveal but rather as a potentially sticky sub-plot to further flesh-out.
What could have played out as just another melancholy, “into the sunset” sports flick, the film changes direction and tone in an instant with the arrival of a new horse purchased by Ruth. As tired of finishing out of the money as Jackson, Ruth spent more than she probably should have but in the process brings a ray of hope and optimism into an otherwise downbeat existence. Jackson is on top of the world. Not only has he met the son he never knew, he might be able to end his lackluster career on a previously unattainable up-note.
Superb Photography and Score
Bentley’s movie is a spare and brittle production relying a great deal on nuance and things left unsaid—points bolstered by the cinematography and score. In a style not unlike that employed by Gordon Willis in the three “Godfather” outings, Adolpho Veloso favors deep blacks, post-dawn and pre-twilight sunlight and nothing resembling long shots. Veloso’s photography is atypical for a sports movie yet is perfectly suited for the human condition which it accents.
The same can be said for the music provided by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dressner, members of the band The National and frequent collaborators of Taylor Swift. A far cry (in a good way) from their work with Swift and the recent uniformly sub-par original songs they provided for “Cyrano,” the Dressners pinched a bit from Trent Reznor by going the ambient and percussion route. It’s another unpredictable, perhaps odd choice but one which ideally matches the visual content.
Oscars Not Likely
For reasons that are known only to a select few, distributor Sony Pictures Classics chose to not make this movie available for 2021 Top 10 viewing consideration by most critics’ groups (which vote in late November and early December), although it will qualify for upcoming Oscar consideration. Even by budget-challenged art-house standards, “Jockey” needs every positive word of praise it can get and it’s receiving a lot, almost all of it for a very deserving Collins.
In the cold morning light, if the Screen Actors Guild [SAG] nominations are any kind of indicator (and they usually are), Collins will not receive an Academy Award nod. You would be hard pressed to find any critic who has seen both “Jockey” and “Meet the Ricardos” that thought Javier Bardem was better in his role than Collins, but more to the point: How many SAG and critics members have actually seen “Jockey?”
The four other 2022 SAG nominees (Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Garfield, Will Smith, and Denzel Washington) will probably also receive Oscar nominations but how cool would it be if Collins, against such stiff odds, got that fifth spot? Decades-long workaday actors and unheralded, battered jockeys the world over would be beside themselves with approval.
Director: Clint Bentley
Stars: Clifton Collins Jr., Molly Parker, Moises Arias
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2021 (Sundance)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5