Just about every single profession has seen a character study focus in on someone who does that job. Now, Jockey gives that honor to the title profession, though it’s hardly just a movie centered on what jockeys do. No, in true Sundance Film Festival fashion, it’s a flick studying the human experience, lineage, and aging. All of those elements are Sundance staples, as are fine performances from longtime supporting players. The fest has another sterling effort here, revealing the flick to be one of the sturdier efforts of the 2021 incarnation. It may not the on the level of something like The Wrestler, but this is rock-solid work, to be sure.
Jockey has a great performance from Clifton Collins Jr. at its core. He gives the film its heart and its soul. Fueled by the subtle joy that one gets at seeing a character actor shine, Collins Jr. elevates the picture. Without him, the movie would still be good, of course, but he’s able to give it that little extra edge. One might say it’s Collins Jr. by a nose, here (I’ll see myself out).
Jackson (Collins Jr.) is an aging jockey, one who gets by more on experience than physical skills these days. Decades of time at the track has beaten him down, but he’s a respected veteran. For years, he’s worked for Ruth (Molly Parker), but this seems like it’ll be his last season. With a stud of a new horse, he hopes to go out on top. One day, he gets wind that new jockey Gabriel (Moisés Arias) has been asking about him. Confronting the kid, he finds out that Gabriel is convinced that Jackson is his father. He rejects those claims outright, but slowly takes a shine to the kid.
With his body failing him, Jackson is at a crossroads. He’s preparing himself for one last season, while also prepping Gabriel, as well as this new horse. At the same time, he’s seeing age catch up to other jockeys, along with weighing the possibility that this could be his son. How he handles it all will define his legacy, for better or worse.
Clifton Collins Jr. is at his best here. He invests everything into the character, bringing a charm and intensity that sums up the best he has to offer. Jackson isn’t always likable, but you always know where he stands. It’s truly an impressive turn. Oscar should keep him in mind, next season. As for Moisés Arias and Molly Parker, they’re fine, but playing more stock roles. Arias and Parker each have nice moments with Collins Jr. as things progress, but it’s clearly his show.
Co-writer/director Clint Bentley brings his real life experiences in the world of horse racing to the picture. Along with co-writer Greg Kwedar, Bentley establishes a world we may not be familiar with, but it’s one we quickly get to know. The script Bentley penned with Kwedar can’t avoid the cliches this type of story often falls into, but they never let them define the plot. Instead, they just provide familiarity. Bentley’s direction is far better, following along in a near documentary-like fashion. That’s where Jockey is at its best, visually. That, and of course in the Collins Jr. performance Bentley captured.
Jockey lives and dies on Clifton Collins Jr. and his work, so it’s a good thing that he’s aces here. Having just sold to Sony Pictures Classics, this film has a chance to be one of the success stories out of Sundance this year. Especially if you’ve been waiting to see Collins Jr. get into the awards race, this may well be the project that does it.