Clint Bentley’s Jockey is beautiful in ways that viewers of past Sundance entries expect, and it probably says a lot about me that I’m docking a lot of points just because of its aesthetics. The film also has its share of cliches especially in how it depicts its characters’ relationships. Relationships like its protagonist, jockey Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins) having discussions with his boss Ruth Wilkes (Molly Parker) about horses. Or him running into a younger person in his industry, Gabriel Boullait, (Moises Arias) who claims to be his estranged son. Also it’s obviously a Sundance film since characters mumble their lines – it’s better than yelling but you know. But what keeps this film afloat is how certain aspects of the screenwriting presents those cliches. And for the most part it exposes the interesting parts of the niche industry of horse racing.
Jockey competently juggles the relationship that Jackson has with Ruth and the one that he has with Gabriel. I’m happy to see Arias branching out of his indie comedy niche. And I always like a few good workout montages. Nonetheless, I gravitate more towards the Ruth relationship because Canada! But seriously, it’s because of how both toe the line between civility and frankness. Ruth especially calls out what she sees, even if the changes she sees in Jackson are nebulous. Another thing that Ruth tries to do is to treat Jackson as an equal regardless of the barriers between them.
Equality between Jackson and Ruth can’t be 100% possible because of factors like class and race, which the film uses as subtext. For the main text though, it chooses Jackson’s age and physical capabilities. And this is important in an industry where jockeys break their backs the third time but are ambivalent when facing the consequence of breaking their backs the fourth time. The camera closes up on their faces as they react to the things they’re trying to say to each other. Even the snobs can’t negate such earnest and harsh realism. It also goes without saying that Collins Jr. and Parker act the hell out of any scene they’re in.
I’m also course correcting on the way I underrated Jockey‘s aesthetics. It might not be new to most people but it’s new to me. It does subjectively interesting things in depicting work, especially horse riding. There’d be scenes early on in the film when Jackson is testing out a new and unconventional horse that, according to him and Ruth, has the makings of a champion. Jackson and the horse stop after a lap, their backdrop a white cloudy sky, the image simple yet triumphant.
Scenes in the middle show Jackson rooting for a pixelated horse and jockey that we assume are Gabriel and his horse, Jackson cheering for someone that viewers can’t clearly see. Lastly, there’s the closeup on Jackson as he rides his last race. Dirt splashes on his face as the horse makes its way through the track, exposing a detail I wouldn’t have thought of. As polished as this film can be, I like it during the few moments when it allows itself to be raw. In fairness, that rawness comes from Bentley and Greg Kwedar’s script too.
Jockey opens on March 4 in Toronto and Vancouver.