Clifton Collins Jr. Jockey by Clint Bentley

Jockey is shallow and clichéd

Scroll through some sunsets on Instagram instead.

Your immediate instinct while watching Jockey might be to call it beautiful. Much of the film unfolds during the golden hour, or just at twilight as the sky’s blond tones give way to lavender and rose sunsets. Characters talk in silhouettes about their lives and their worries. They talk about horses. But it doesn’t take long for the beauty to grow tired, the endless natural allure of the world begins to feel unmotivated. Some random photographer with a DSLR can pull out images just as beautiful for their Instagram feed. If the movie was a bit funny or even ironic, it could probably sell itself as a veiled parody of the “perfect” Sundance film. 

Often, when it comes to American indie films, less is more, but in this case — the story of an ageing jockey determined to win one last championship — feels strained and empty. Characters talk in clichés, and the story unfolds with little tension or examination. Without being too dismissive of the skill required to make any film, it often feels like a crib notes version of The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s astonishing sophomore film, before winning the Oscar for Nomadland

As you might imagine, our protagonist Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) runs into problems in the pursuit of his dream. His body is failing him, and he’s introduced, early on, to a rookie jockey who claims to be his son. Through his struggles, we see the physical and psychological strain required to be a jockey: the weight loss, the injuries, the isolation. His small private world feels like it’s collapsing onto itself, his sense of self is falling apart as he’s forced out of the only world he knows. 

On paper, this might seem compelling. Clifton Collins Jr. is an exciting and underrated actor. His performance is transformative — he’s never appeared more diminutive physically, while his outsized charisma still carries so much weight. His character, though, fails to register. He’s underwritten and spends way too much time gazing vacantly into the distance. We don’t connect with him. His struggle is completely summarized and explored in the trailer.

He asks about a horse in one scene, “But is she fast?” The other character answers, “There’s only one way to find out.” The next shot, you guessed it, is Jackson riding the horse. It’s not that these types of moments don’t occasionally work, but the movie is just filled with them. Every beat is orchestrated and predictable. Everything is squeezed for as much melodrama as possible while also yearning for the aloof, documentary-like style that worked so well for filmmakers like Zhao. The dissonance is jarring, and rather than drawing the viewer in, it feels strangely like an odd tourist attraction — all surface level, no depth. 

The film makes some interesting, if not entirely successful choices in the actual horse races, particularly the final one. The camera doesn’t showcase the whole race but only Jackson’s point of view. The camera is tight, and we have no sense of space and scope. It should be an effective moment of self-realization, but strangely, it just feels cheap — like Clifton Collins Jr. is sitting on a rig, and someone is throwing dirt on his face. 

Whether or not he rode a horse in this sequence doesn’t matter — the effect is a sequence that leans into subjectivity and artifice. It wouldn’t be an issue in a film that utilized point of view to create a more compelling and narrow landscape, but it aspires to a kind of naturalism that doesn’t fit the more personalized narrative. The images are beautiful, yes, but they don’t work with the aspirations of the plot at all. The disconnect between the more documentary style and the more subjective point of view doesn’t add up. There’s little attempt to reconcile the different approaches and it just ends up feeling artistically unmotivated. 

Beauty can be very persuasive, even though in many cases the film’s handheld shots (of which there are many) also negate some of the aesthetic pleasantness of the rest of the film. The blue-green interior sequences may offer a fascinating counterpoint to the freedom of the natural world, but those aesthetic details don’t add up enough to give the film substance. That isn’t to say Jockey won’t resonate with some audiences. I’m sure it will, but with so many other films out there tackling similar ideas, why not watch them instead? ■

Jockey, directed by Clint Bentley

Jockey opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 4.

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