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Sundance 2021 Review: Jockey – “A gritty and original take”

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A still from Jockey by Clint Bently, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Adolpho Veloso

It is obvious that writer-director Clint Bently crafted his first feature from a personal perspective.  He’s not the first person to set a story on the racetrack, a natural setting for tense competition and dramatic finishes, but to my knowledge, he’s the first person to actually film a feature on a working race track.  His father was a jockey, and it’s clear Bently is striving to tell an untold story that is not just about winning at the Derby or the bond between man and horse.  He is there to focus on the people behind the scenes, their sweat (literally) and drive.  It’s this inside perspective and a transformative lead performance that make Jockey a profound experience.

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From our very first introduction to Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) it’s clear that he’s seen better days.  He’s broken his back at least three times and has a hand tremor that makes his riding even more dangerous.  Even the track veterinarian begs him to go to the doctor.  But he’s still racing, having ridden horses for the same trainer, Ruth (Molly Parker) for decades.  The two know each other inside and out because racing is all about subtitles, how you mount the horse, how you hold the reins or how you sit in the saddle.  Ruth knows something isn’t right, but Jackson isn’t about to stop doing the one thing he’s great at, the thing he is known for.

Then one day a new face on the racing circuit stands out to him, a rider he has seen at other tracks who seems to be following his path. A meal with the young Gabriel (Moises Arias) uncovers why he’s now at the track in Phoenix, as he reveals himself to be Jackson’s son.  Now it’s not just the struggle between his drive to succeed and his health he is balancing but also the question as to whether to connect and if Gabriel can carry on his legacy.  Does he even want him to?

Jockey isn’t breaking new ground here, there are other sports movies dealing with aging athletes and their desire to continue against the odds (For the Love of The Game, The Natural, The Wrestler), but it’s the poignant performance from a superbly cast Clifton Collins Jr. which makes this an exceptional example.  Collins Jr. has a long history as an actor, and one of those faces you just know you’ve seen before.  Westworld was probably his most recent recognizable role.  But this part was made for him, and with this opportunity to lead he takes the reins (so to speak).  Because racing is about those subtleties, he plays them, from the vulnerable moments to the joy up on that saddle, the camera always follows Jackson.

The camera even follows Jackson during races.  While most films of this nature would pull back and show you the final gallop down the straight away from the stands, Bently and his directory of photography Adolpho Veloso close in.  Win or lose is on Jackson’s expressions or the dirt on his face because it’s never about the horse, or the outcome, it’s about the jockey.  It’s about his race against time.  This authenticity runs right through the film, even when we get a little documentary-like session with real jockeys talking about the toll the sport has taken on their bodies.  It’s a little reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s style, and certainly drives home the brutality of the sport.

Clint Bently has set himself a high bar with Jockey, creating a fitting and honest tribute to his father.  Though the early rising and late riding schedule of the race track leads to some repetitive silhouette shots against sunrises and sunsets, the film is beautiful.  That said the most powerful moments simply play on Jackson’s face.   Jockey is a gritty and original take on what we would typically see in this genre.  It puts you on the track in such a way you can almost feel the dirt and yet is also intensely intimate in the portrayal of its protagonist.  If you are safely able upon its eventual release, see this one on the big screen – I certainly can’t wait to revisit it there.

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