Jockey has an undeniable soulfulness, but suffers from its overly familiar narrative shape and beats.
While each individual film should be judged according to its own merits, it’s nearly impossible not to recall Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler while watching Jockey, right down to their straight-forward, no-frills titles. The similarities are uncanny: a man of few words, in the twilight years of a dangerous career, receives devastating news in regards to a debilitating medical condition; he is utterly driven by profession, thus doesn’t know what else to do with his life, willingly sacrificing personal safety for the freedom associated with position; an estranged child comes into play, as does the love of a good woman who fears for his health; supporting roles are filled out by non-professional actors who are real-life participants in said profession; jittery handheld camerawork is used to maximize the affect of naturalism. Both films prove fascinating in that they take on the standard framework of a character study yet choose to dissect the careers of their protagonists, as this is what truly defines them. When either film opts for any sort of traditional characterization tactics, both go straight for the clichéd and banal, which is a rather lazy way to highlight that these individuals, no matter how specialized their passions might be, are indeed human, looking for love and a reason to live.
Naturally, such films live and die by the performances of their lead actors, and Clifton Collins Jr. is certainly up to the task in Jockey, gifted as he is here with the rare opportunity at a starring role in a career defined by mostly character work. There’s a soulfulness in his performance, the recognition of a man whose younger years are long past and who is confronted with a next generation looming and ready to replace him, here represented by Moisés Arias as a young jockey on the rise. Collins affects the mannerisms of a man beaten down by life, his voice soft and tired, his walk more a mosey than a stride. Director Clint Bentley films most of his scenes at twilight, an obvious visual metaphor for the state of his protagonist’s career, all golden hour pinks and oranges. He also prefers naturalistic lighting, oftentimes casting his actors in shadow or complete blackness, faceless men explicated by their surroundings. The photography is gorgeous, to be sure, but after a while, all that backlighting and shots of beautiful vistas becomes numbing, which arguably could be the very point: what is special to one person could be another’s everyday experience, the thrill that once existed suffocated by routine and mundanity. The only time our titular jockey feels alive is during those 30 seconds on the back of a horse, dirt flying in his face, the taste of victory heavy on his lips. It’s not the least bit surprising that the race sequences focus on him instead of the horses, as they are merely a means to an end, one that is heartbreakingly in sight. In this way, Jockey is certainly effective when it needs to be; one just wishes its familiarity wasn’t quite so obvious and, ultimately, tedious.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.