“I know I’m not in the same shape as these young cats, but I’ve got a few good years left in me”

So many films contain background characters we sometimes notice but certainly never give the time of day to. I’m talking about the kind of person whose presence you would normally take for granted, whether you were watching them in a film or not. The server in a restaurant, the clown at a birthday party and the seamstress at a dress shop are all figures who are present, but easily dismissed. I realize that since they are in the background, there’s little reason to wonder about these people. But once in a while, one of these individuals comes on the screen and makes enough of an impression that it leaves me wondering what their story might be. Jockey, the new release from Sony Pictures Classics, takes one of these characters out of the background and lets us into their world for what ends up being a rich and deeply human experience.

Clifton Collins Jr. plays Jackson, an aging jockey who is coming to a crossroads in his life and career. After years of winning countless races, he’s now trying to come to grips with the fact that his body is succumbing to decades of wear and tear. At the same time Jackson takes on a young jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias), who surprises him by insisting that he’s his son. Despite all of this, Jackson is determined not to let down his longtime friend/trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) and ride one last race.

Jockey is the best kind of character piece. It’s the kind which takes the sort of person the world is able to recognize from their peripheral and genuinely look at them as a person. We see the jockey as an individual away from the adrenaline and excitement of the racetrack. Although Jockey does include scenes showing the riders in action, it’s the spirit, the heart, drive and dedication that this film is more interested in exploring. Above it all is the shared sense of pride that exists among those in this world. The film shows this best when Jackson attends a support group of sorts for seasoned jockeys, almost all of whom now live in bodies ravaged by the sport they have dedicated their lives to. As each man recounts what being a jockey has cost them, physically, you get the sense that almost all of them would happily jump back on a horse again if they could.

The fact that we explore that world through this jockey is what makes the film work as well as it does. Jackson is a mix of soulfulness and grit, a man who made his own opportunities and worked for everything he’s ever earned in the jockey’s world. Seeing him continue to exist and struggle to cling to the only way of life he’s known for so long is incredibly moving and gives the film a real sense of the kind of American spirit someone like John Ford used to create. It’s why watching the threat of him having to leave that world adds an extra layer of sensitivity and melancholy that cannot help but give Jockey pure heart.

Jockey may be a character piece and its salt of the earth men and women may be one of its strongest elements, but it’s also a technically well-made piece of cinema. While the story is a quiet one full of pensive moments, director Clint Bentley’s delicate pacing of the proceedings keeps us compelled as scenes play themselves out naturally and never going on for longer than they should. Meanwhile, Jockey’s cinematography is one of the best of the year with the dreaminess of the California sunset and the unromantic trappings of Jackson’s physical world giving as strong of a sense of place as one could wish for when it comes to a movie such as this.

The screenplay itself is also crucial to Jockey’s success. Co-written by Bentley and Greg Kewdar, every move the film makes from a story perspective feels so refreshingly organic. The script does right by the characters in the way it lets us get to know just enough about them to invest ourselves but not in a way that takes away from the incredibly strong sense of place that has been established. It’s in the way the screenplay favors character moves and natural interactions over sprawling monologues that the many themes of Jockey, including legacy, atonement, and a personal quest to make sure everything Jackson achieved as a jockey doesn’t leave with him, come through.

I doubt there’s any modern cinephile who doesn’t recognize Collins’s face. The actor has clocked in more than his 1000 hours in bit parts and colorful supporting roles over the years that to finally see him take on a true leading role such as this is a joyous sight. Collins makes it quite clear early on that he is the only one who could play Jackson thanks not only to the life and emotion he brings to the character, but also the way he inhabits the mentality of that world. If you didn’t know any better, it would be easy to think he’d spent his entire life there. That world also gives the always exciting Parker the chance to bring fire and life to one of the best roles of her career as a woman who has built a name for herself in a largely male-dominated field. Arias may have the seemingly easiest role of the three, but the actor makes Gabriel a fascinating study, giving small glimpses of his character’s own complicated journey in the most sensitive of ways.

The ending to Jockey may seem open or anti-climactic, depending on what kind of filmgoer each individual is. Personally, it’s hard to feel any other kind of ending that could have worked better for a story such as this one. Without trying to give away too much, Jockey ends with a race and Jackson facing the culmination of what his life has been defined by for as long as he can remember. Seeing his face, it’s easy to feel the different emotions going through him. The joy, feeling of accomplishment, closure and even perhaps a letting go of the fear of what may exist for him outside of that world all come through in these final moments. It’s an emotional conclusion and in its own quiet, but extremely powerful way, exemplifies everything Jockey hoped to say.

Previous post Scenes from an Alan Alda Marriage with THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and THE FOUR SEASONS
Next post Criterion Review: THE PIANO (1994)