The sports drama is one of the most well-worn subgenres in Hollywood, and also one of the most comforting. History has shown that no matter how familiar the tropes become, there’s something inherently relatable and uplifting about watching an underdog protagonist struggle against the odds to achieve either victory or redemption, and on a lot of occasions both. However, Jockey is not that movie. Well, it is in certain aspects, but not in the ways you might think.
Directed by Clint Bentley, who also co-writes the screenplay with regular collaborator Greg Kwedar, the duo re-team with the criminally underrated Clifton Collins Jr., who appeared in the pair’s last feature Transpecos. The renowned character actor gets the opportunity to sink his teeth into an all-too-rare lead role as Jackson Silva, a veteran rider that’s eying one last shot at success before his body gives up on him.
Along for the ride is Molly Parker’s Ruth Wilkes, a longtime friend and associate of Jackson’s who dispels nuggets of wisdom at the right times. The final major player in what’s largely a three-hander is Hannah Montana‘s Rico Suave himself Moisés Arias, who shows up out of the blue as Gabriel Boullait, a youngster who wants to become a top jockey, but one that also has a connection to Jackson’s past.
Based on those brief outlines of the central trio, you may think you’ve Jockey pretty well figured out, but you don’t. In fact, it’s almost as though Bentley and Kwedar have deliberately painted their protagonists in the broadest of strokes, only to continue deviating from the norm just when it looks like the narrative is heading down the same path dozens of other sports-centric stories have gone in the past.
The film was shot on a tiny budget, with a very small cast and crew, to the extent Collins Jr. and Parker admitted they were doing their own hair and makeup, and in the latter’s case even choosing Ruth’s wardrobe and paying for it out of their own pocket. That sense of intimacy is on full display from the first to last second of the 95-minute running time, and it helps that the performances are nothing less than sensational.
Arias has a bright future in the business based on what he brings to the table here, with the 27 year-old painting Gabriel as a much more complex and three-dimensional figure than the standard ‘guy looking for father figure who just so happens to find one in the same profession’ archetype. His personal trials and tribulations may have been seen or heard in countless other movies, many of which occupy the same genre space, but it’s a testament to the youngster that he makes it feel fresh.
Parker is as reliable as ever, bringing real warmth and depth to Ruth, who would also teeter right on the line of formulaic were it not for the actress’ turn. Much like Gabriel, we’ve seen hundreds of characters like Ruth before, but it’s a testament to Parker’s dedication to going all-in that she manages to find new layers with which to make her work stand out as real and genuine, even in what’s effectively a ‘wizened sage’ part when you boil it down to the core.
Make no mistake, though, this is Collins Jr.’s movie, and he owns every single frame. By the end of our first scene spent in Jackson’s company, it feels like we know him. He’s broken down, beaten and literally scarred, but he’s not one to give up. Having dedicated his life to chasing success at any cost, he’s perilously close to being a shell of a man, but he truly and deeply believes that he’s got one more major win left in the tank.
As fate would have it, there’s a big race coming up soon, with Jackson and Gabriel both aiming for victory. Naturally, this leaves Ruth caught squarely in the middle, and a number of issues both personal and professional throw constant spanners in the works. Again, you may have heard this outline before, but you haven’t seen it play out quite like this. The filmmakers hew close to the template that’s served sports cinema so well for so long, but always pull away to inject a fresh perspective on the proceedings.
Name an emotion that comes with this sort of territory, and you can bet that Jockey has it spades; heart, soul, triumph, tragedy, resignation, euphoria and everything in between. It could have been a grandstanding, showy movie packed with lengthy monologues and broad acting choices, but instead all it takes is a flicker of the eyes or a sudden yet subtle change in emotion to get the point across, which only enhances how deeply you find yourself equal parts riveted and invested in where this is all headed.
Collins Jr. won the Best Actor award at the Sundance Film Festival when Jockey premiered at the beginning of the year, and in a just world his name would be on all of the major shortlists, because he’s that good. As it stands, Jockey remains a triumphant little independent drama that maximizes every single one of the tools at its disposal, to tell a hard-hitting story that’s as emotional as it is understated.