The horse film is a nebulous but strangely persistent cinema sub-genre. By and large, there’s one consistent element to this breed of movie, other than the centrality or proximity of an equine companion. Horse films tend to focus less on the equestrians themselves and much more on what these sociable fauna bring out in the human animal. They present mirrors, portraits, and invitations to superimpose human perspectives onto a storied man-animal dynamic that stretches back centuries. In short, onscreen horsemanship and the demands of horse culture tend to demonstrate how we think of ourselves. Clint Bentley’s Jockey inhabits and continues this dynamic with stunning pathos.
Unlike most horse films, it must be noted, Jockey conspicuously (and lamentably) lacks any notable actual horses, preferring to focus much more prominently on the world that surrounds the equestrian industries. In this case, it’s the horse racing circuits of the American southeast, in which titular jockey Jackson Silva — played with notable dimension by the often excellent, but rarely central, Clifton Collins Jr. — is a living legend whose legendary days are well behind him. He is still immersed in the racetrack lifestyle, the only one he sees fit to know, and maintains a warm relationship with horse owner Ruth, played by a thoroughly charming Molly Parker. Jackson trains and rides Molly’s horses and feels mostly satisfied with his situation, except for the occasional twinge of nostalgia, momentary dwelling on missed opportunities, and a creeping sense that this aging bachelor’s achievements lack a legacy. Enter Gabriel, played by rising star of indie cinema Moisés Arias, a skittish but friendly young stablehand who’s been following Jackson from track to track, and who eventually admits that he’s fairly sure Jackson is his father.
Where many ruminative dramas about aging and paternity might sink into staid contrivances, Bentley adeptly steers Jockey clear of the predictable, and manages to weave together a story of genuine emotion, heartrending intimacy, and compelling character dynamics. The eponymous profession acts as a sturdy metaphor for the increasingly daunting proximity of Jackson’s own mortality: with every run, his body is ever more battered, his legacy further dwindles, and the chances of adapting his lifestyle to match his age grow fainter. On top of the bitter truth that Jackson’s aging, less dependable body is beginning to jeopardize his livelihood, Gabriel’s presence forces him to confront the very same reservations that have kept him mostly detached and solitary up to this point. Collins Jr. imbues Jackson with a layered but accessible anguish at this process — he certainly deserves the Best Actor accolade the Sundance jury awarded him this year.
All three central performers are excellent in their respective roles. Collins Jr.’s complex protagonist is matched exquisitely by Parker’s perceptive, assured Ruth, while Arias brings a believable vulnerability and yearning for community and connection to Gabriel’s situation. It’s apparent that Bentley knows the equestrian world front to back, as he peppers the backgrounds and background characters with authentic details and personalities that anyone who’s spent considerable time at a horse show will recognize.
This does bring up one of the few areas that potentially weakens the project: its remarkable similarity to Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, a film with a largely identical base concept — except that that film’s protagonist suffers from physical ailments derived from overeager rodeo riding, not the more universal process of aging. Jockey even includes notably similar sequences of non-actors involved in the equestrian activity in real life: each time Jackson sits and converses with fellow aging jockeys, it’s clear most of the gathered conversation partners are speaking from personal experience. Bentley himself is acutely aware of this lifestyle’s realities: his father was a jockey, and brought him along to experience these atmospheres as a child. His own familiarity with the context, as well as his choice to shoot within the fabric of a working racetrack, ultimately elevates Jockey from feeling in any way derivative, despite the similarities. This story is unique and heartfelt enough for these observations to be confidently overlooked.
What’s more, Jockey features some truly stunning visuals, courtesy of Bentley’s keen use of undomesticated locations and, even more so, cinematographer Adolpho Veloso’s magnificent eye for capturing vistas of the setting sun. Bentley describes the film as feeling “like a sunset” in itself, and Veloso clearly ran with the idea of marrying the form to this content. Multiple scenes involve Jackson relaxing, conversing, and marveling at the beauty of the natural world right at the cusp of sunset, but rather than feeling repetitive, these many moments are all so gorgeously shot that the experience is simply splendid each time.
The combination of emotive performances, detailed soundscape, aesthetically marvelous compositions, and intriguing plot developments makes this a solid, respectable new concoction of American independent cinema. It may not be the most thrilling or conversation-generating film of the year, but Jockey succeeds as an attuned, observant piece of work dedicated to the smaller details of community and connection. Collins Jr. terrifically explores Jackson’s contemplative plight without ever distancing the viewer, as Bentley’s writing and direction craft a gently inquisitive character study. The ending will not be revealed here, but suffice it to say the visual textures, choice of music, and final notes of Collins Jr.’s performance are combined to momentous, beautiful effect. Perhaps Jockey‘s racetrack setting is a context only we horse-lovers will warmly embrace, but I suspect the artistry and compassion of it all is enough to compel any curious viewer.