The kind of story that Sam Peckinpah perhaps liked in his calmest, Junior Bonner fashion, Jockey is a little gem about an aging driver whose days on the racing circuit come to an end as a youngster shows up claiming to be his son. The kind of timeless tale that could take place anywhere but is bolstered by its mid-track and very fine cast, this is a poorly written and beautifully performed piece that under normal circumstances would make the tour of the festival before the launch of a specialty, but these days the probably will go straight to the tube.
Among his many other attributes, this beautifully shot indie features a Clifton Collins Jr. title ride that is simply superb and should provide a serious career boost if the film becomes as widely seen as it should. It’s the kind of calm, introspective, and original storytelling that’s relatively rare these days and hopefully won’t fall through the cracks in this time of changing media and civilization.
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Shot mostly in the early morning or at dusk, a discreet visual correlative of the hero’s career, this second feature film by the writing-directing team of Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar (they take turns directing, with the first officially taking the bar this time) focuses on the waning career of Jack (Collins), who lives, like so many other jockeys, in a trailer. Like most members of his profession, he has been pushed around and tinkered with a number of times. He is also a heavy drinker. Either way, his days on top of a mount are numbered.
All the same, he’s determined to stay in the game, which centers on the beautiful mountain-backed Turf Paradise Trail in Phoenix. Alternately gruff and affable, Jack recovers his health when he meets a newcomer to the stable, Gabriel (Moises Arias), a kid who doesn’t wait very long to inform the older man that, according to his mother, Jack is her father. .
Coming out of nowhere, this news doesn’t go well with Jack, who claims it isn’t possible and turns his attention to a promising-looking steed shown to him by Stables coach Ruth (a formidable Molly Parker) . “I haven’t been on a horse like this in a long time,” he told himself, as he focused on regaining his weight and shape for another season.
Jockeys may have longer careers than most athletes, but by Jack’s age he’s pushing it, and some of his old buddies are already on the way out. Visiting one in the hospital, Jack makes it clear, “You can’t be afraid of death any more than you can be afraid of being born,” even as he confronts his own ability to survive.
Perhaps not completely ruling out the possibility that Gabriel might be her son (although there is absolutely no physical resemblance), Jack begins to feed the child, giving him much-needed grooming advice in the case. . On a night out with Ruth, Jack is struck by some sort of fit and finally admits that this could be his last season.
It’s not the kind of horse racing movie filled with crowded stadiums, big bettors, and fierce races to the wire. Aside from the frequent nighttime scenes, the film is mostly set in the beautiful dawns of the desert, when the jockeys usually start their training days, or at the equally beautiful end of the day, when the men are relaxing. The focus is on principals as they continue their unusual workouts, face physical challenges, and philosophize in traditional laconic Western fashion as they face the harsh realities of animal-centric Western life.
The story is pushed concisely and silently rather than pushy. The writing and staging skillfully balances the fuel and the violent with the silences and the meditative, and there is a lovely sense of time and life that passes even in the relatively short duration of the narrative.
The actual horse racing doesn’t appear too prominently in the action, but when it does, directors and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso have devised a surprisingly original way of filming it, including an extraordinary shot backed by 90 seconds and more to come sooner) which challenges the immediate understanding of how it was performed.
Jockey is a modest and intimate film, certainly, but of an impressive confidence. He finds a charming and understated groove early on and maintains it, and pulls performances from his key players that are great and true.
Jockey performed in the US Dramatic Competition section at Sundance. Duration: 99 minutes.