Jockey gallops into the winners circle with an excellent lead performance from Clifton Collins, Jr. The actor scored a well-deserved special jury prize for playing aging ride Jackson Silva, and more accolade should follow. Jockey offers a great example of the magic that happens when a character actor lands the perfect lead role. Collins is a familiar face in Hollywood movies and independent films. He often plays drug dealers, crooks, or heavies, though, and generally not characters with backstories or arcs. Jockey offers Collins his best chance to shine since his turn as convicted killer Perry Smith in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Collins brings a seasoned veteran’s grit to Jockey and fully inhabits Jackson’s determination to fulfill his last ride.
Jackson is an ace racer, but he knows he quickly approaches the final rush out of the gate. His hands seize as if aspiring to a perpetual hold on the reins. His posture droops from too many broken bones. He’s a kindred spirit with Mickey Rourke’s broken-down-piece-of-meat from The Wrestler. Bruised and battered from the arduous nature of his chosen sport, Jackson wears his weathered appearance with pride. He will gladly ride until it kills him, and the doctor (or vet) suggests that isn’t an empty threat. As Jackson works with his horse trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) to ready another majestic mount for the winners’ circle, he knows that everything—his happiness, his legacy, his life—rides on a dark horse.
Jockey and The Rider
Perhaps closer to Jockey than The Wrestler is Chloé Zhao’s similarly themed sophomore film The Rider. Where The Rider sees a young buck hope to return to the saddle, however, Jockey asks what purpose in life one has when one must reluctantly surrender the reins. Like The Rider, Jockey favours bewitching magic hour cinematography that beautifully captures the dedication of the sport. These jockeys ride from sunrise to sunset, basking in crisp morning air that gives their rides an extra nip. The golden sunsets, meanwhile, poignantly capture the fading hours of Jackson’s days. The end of his ride is inevitable, and the strikingly cinematic canvas observes a life fighting for its every breath.
However, Jockey is a film of both sunsets and sunrises. A new opportunity emerges as a young bronco, Gabriel (Moises Arias), arrives on the track. He shadows Jackson around the circuit, grabbing the jockey’s reluctant attention. Jackson agrees to train the boy, seeing something of himself in the young rider.
Authentic Jockey Life
Director/writer Cliff Bentley and writer Greg Kwedar offer an unconventional look at the track as Jackson mentors Gabriel. Jockey isn’t a film about racing. There are obviously some thrillingly shot races, but this isn’t Seabiscuit or Secretariat where the horse fuels the tale. Instead, Jockey treats audiences to the challenges and sacrifices of the sport. (Something that Laura Hillenbrand captures very well in her book Secretariat that the adaptation lacked.) Jockey is about the drama of maintaining one’s weight when an extra pound can mean a win or a loss. Jackson runs stairs and works up a sweat. He fasts, halving his apples and splitting them between meals. Throw in bulimia when necessary and some repetitive exercises, and his body takes a toll to stay atop the horse.
The film honours the sacrifices of the jockeys by imbuing the tale with riders who live the experience. In the fashion of The Rider and Nomadland, the film invites people who inspire the story to dramatize it. Jackson attends support meetings populated with authentic riders who share stories of addiction, pain, poverty, and hardship. (As one rider says, when the body is as lean as it can be to reduce weight, there’s little to protect a rider’s bones when he falls.) The jockeys underscore their stories with the effusive thrill of the ride, however, making clear why they risk such sacrifices. It’s a film about passion and dedication, putting in the work not for the glory but for the love of the game.
A Champion’s Performance
Collins draws upon these elements to create a character driven by grit and tenacity. This is a passionate understated performance, sharp and focused, with eyes on the prize. Parker is also very good as Ruth, who is equally driven and committed to stakes that ride on each race. The relationship between Collins and Parker is one of easy comfort. Jackson and Ruth have a solid foundation of familiarity and mutual respect, yet much goes unsaid between the actors. The rider and the trainer could have been lovers in another lifetime, yet the platonic nature of their relationship ups the stakes. Riding is ultimately a business in which anyone but the horse can be replaced.
Bentley saves the white-knuckle tour around the track for the film’s final ride. By this time, we can read Collins’ excellent performance just as well as Jackson reads a track. As Jackson puts everything into the race, he gets dirt in his face and relishes the wind in his hair. It’s a thrill, win or lose, that only a champion can capture.