Horse racing is an unforgiving sport. Laying aside qualms about the treatment of the animals–many of whom are raced so young that their bones don’t finish growing–the bodies of those steering the animals around a track for less than two minutes are subject to their own punishing routines on and off the track. From the gruelling pressure of controlling a 500-kilogram animal to the constant reality of shedding weight before races, jockeys’ careers and sometimes lives are often cut short by catastrophic bodily harm in racing and training accidents.
This innate cruelty but also the beauty it fosters–in relationships, dawn rides, and sunsets around a bonfire sharing drinks and dreams–forms the backbone of Jockey, Clint Bentley’s drama about a jockey in the twilight of his career. Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) stubbornly holds onto his status at the barn despite the rigours of the sport taking a relentless toll. He stops by a vet when something feels wrong because, with no health insurance, he cannot afford a doctor for humans. When he notices young rider Gabriel (Moisés Arias) has been taking on races and mounts on his track circuit, he discovers that his legacy may be continuing in ways he has not imagined. These discoveries in Jackson’s self and his world, reframing his need for one last ride, are continually undercut and challenged throughout the understated script and naturalistic direction. The resulting narrative surprises set Jockey apart, despite the fact that the film fits squarely into familiar sports drama beats and stock types.
Collins Jr. captures years of torturous routine and forgotten injuries in his physicality, his face betraying fears only when Jackson is certain he is alone. The height advantage he has on many real-life jockeys places him as somewhat of an outsider, a miracle in the field by sheer technique and force of will. His stable’s trainer (a luminous Molly Parker) shows him her miraculous new find–a filly that might go all the way to the Kentucky Derby–but immediately warns him that he will have to shed pounds from his already lithe frame to make weight. The following training montages of Jackson alone and when helping the younger Gabriel prepare for bigger mounts and tracks are relentless and obsessive.
The risk Jackson and his colleagues take with their lives every time they mount up before a race is palpable in the riders’ grim expectations. The film does not need gore to convey the relentless toll taken on the jockey’s bodies; the silence around the backstage televisions and the matter-of-fact recounting of broken backs and damaged limbs in a support circle is more effective than an explicit take would be.
Bentley saves his most striking imagery for the topographies of horse racing. Morning tracks are places of devotion and toil, the mist making every horse seem something out of legend. Skies at night are as expansive with bold oranges, pinks, and blacks as big as the plans every jockey and trainer have for their horses, plans that will materialise in only the best luck and circumstances. The score, by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, elevates this American mythos, finding sublimity in this decidedly unglamorous, ruinous world.
The Jockey does not redefine the sports drama–viewed from a distance, its beats are predictable, its catharsis felt a million times before. This formula, however, works time and time again for a very good reason: these fantasies are universal in spirit if not in detail. In the end, Jockey elevates itself through its painstaking craft and authentic performances.
Jockey is available on digital starting March 29 and on DVD starting April 5
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie