TIFF 2021 Review: ‘Jockey’

Featured image: A still from Jockey. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Directed by Clint Bentley. Written by Clint Bentley, Greg Kwedar. Starring Clifton Collins Jr., Moises Arias, Molly Parker. Runtime 1h 34 min. Jockey premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.

There’s nothing quite like a film that completely hooks from its first shot, and that’s the case with Clint Bentley’s Jockey. It opens with a conversation, where aging jockey Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) and fellow jockey Leo (Logan Cormier) discuss a young rookie on the tour named Gabriel (Moises Arias). It’s a standard conversation that hooks because of how it’s shot, shadows in front of a sunset as they watch horses gallop.

I must gush about Adolpho Veloso’s cinematography because I can’t remember when I’ve fallen in love so quickly with the look of a film. The bulk of the outdoor scenes are shot at the “golden hour,” highlighting the gorgeous oranges, blues and reds of Phoenix, AZ. In these scenes, the characters could be reciting the dictionary and I’d still be in awe.

Veloso and director Clint Bentley also emphasize natural light: From headlights illuminating a bonfire dance, to a conversation between Jackson and horse trainer Ruth (Molly Parker), that’s lit by a bonfire. This is one of my favourite shots as we see Jackson from below, embers soaring behind his head. There are shots in this film I want framed and put on my wall.

Even indoors, it’s natural lighting from outside. This looks great during Jackson and Gabriel’s first meeting. Jackson’s an aging jockey at the twilight of his career, vying for one last championship, and Gabriel’s an up-and-coming rookie who claims to be his son.

There’s such a variety in the shooting, between intimate moments and wide shots, too. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but the way this is shot is poetic, as beautiful as something like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.  That’s not where the similarities stop, as Baker’s film is a study of low-income living in Florida. That felt so realistic because it stars real people in certain roles.

Here, Clifton Collins Jr., Moises Arias and Molly Parker are the only “actors” in the film, where everyone else are real jockeys, work at the track or are in this business. It creates such an authenticity, and Collins Jr., Arias and Parker add to that authenticity.

Clifton Collins Jr. plays his character so well, and it’s so nice seeing a character actor like him headlining a film. His character is trying to cement his legacy as a jockey when an opportunity comes to ride a potential champion horse, Dido. Injuries threaten this hope, but for Jackson, this is all he knows. A line in the film from his jockey friend Leo nails their love of the sport, despite the danger: “I’m not afraid of death, I’m just afraid of not being able to ride.”

A still from Jockey. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

It’s such an interesting dynamic with Gabriel, as a spin on the classic story of an aging veteran and an up-and-coming rookie. Moises Arias shines as Gabriel, and the chemistry they share is wonderful. Arias is having one of my favourite post-Disney careers (he starred as Rico on Hannah Montana). I love the roles he chooses, from the great Monos to comedies like The Kings of Summer or The King of Staten Island. He finds a great mix of projects, between Hollywood films and intriguing indies. I don’t think you’ll see other former Disney stars acting in films like Monos or Jockey, where his career arc feels closer to Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson post-Twilight than anyone Disney.

In terms of jockeying, another interesting element in this film comes in a support group scene where jockeys (played by real jockeys) tell stories about their career injuries. They mention they break their bones so easily because they have no meat on their bones. The film doesn’t shy away from this aspect, where we see Jackson struggling to maintain his weight through intense workouts or barely eating. You don’t realize the extent of that here. When Jackson passes out in a sauna, jockey Leo tells him, “You’re gonna get somebody hurt out there if you’re too weak to ride.” It’s a fast sport, and when we see someone fall off their horse on a TV backstage, I had to rewind it because of how quickly the jockey falls off his horse and out of frame.

One important thing to keep in mind about Jockey: This is very much a character-centred drama and not a sports film. In a different director’s hands, this same story could be told in a more traditional way, angled to where the sport is the bigger focus. That’s what makes Jockey so different, especially in how it’s shot.

Take for instance, the “sports” scenes: When we see Jackson race, the framing is tight. We watch the horses unleashed; and we simply watch his emotions as he rides his horse, Dido. It’s about Jackson; not the sport, and Collins Jr.’s emotions perfectly get the story across in this scene even if we don’t see the whole race. You’ll rarely see a sports moment shot that intimately.

It’s neat for me to focus so much on the technical side since I often focus on the screenplay when reviewing a film, as that’s my core interest. Like I said earlier, this whole script could have been them reading from a dictionary and I’d still love it because of the golden hour. The script by director Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar is as strong as the other elements, as their characters are so well-shaped.

The last 30 minutes lost me ever-so-slightly in its conflict, but their overall film has lovely scenes and they’re able to get it back on track. The connection they’re able to write for the characters of Jackson and Gabriel is impressive, and the fun relationship between Jackson and trainer Ruth is great, too. Her passion comes through as much as the others.

Bentley directs these scenes so well, too, and his direction is so sure and strong. It’s impressive, especially considering this is his first feature film as director. Bring on the next one… and make it soon, please.

Score: 88/100

Jockey has a digital screening tonight at 5 p.m. as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

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