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Review: Clifton Collins Jr. rides like a champion in the low-key indie drama ‘Jockey’

A woman stands behind a man
Clifton Collins Jr.'s veteran “Jockey” Jackson could be entering the final lap. Also pictured: Molly Parker as trainer Ruth, Jackson’s longtime professional partner.
(Sony Pictures Classics)
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In today’s restlessly edited, underlit era of movies, faces don’t get a lot of worshipful real estate as those essential portals to a person’s soul. But veteran actor Clifton Collins Jr. has a serenely weathered mug that’s worth its dedicated running time in “Jockey,” a low-key indie set at a faded Arizona racetrack, as well as inside an aging rider’s swirl of joys and regrets.

Collins plays Jackson, a 40-something jockey staring down a finish line that’s fast approaching at the same time his enduring love for the sport keeps him thinking there’s still more glory to be found. On one level, it’s a familiar kind of last-chance character that filmmaker Clint Bentley and his co-screenwriter, Greg Kwedar, offer up in their horse-driven milieu of soft morning light, jokey camaraderie and intense competition. But the hard truths in a simple story are what Collins rides like a pro all the way to the end. He gives us something to think about when the movie around him isn’t as sure of itself.

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The Jackson we meet is an easygoing man of commitment to a passion that — judging from the facts that he lives in a trailer behind a modest racecourse and can only afford the charitable medical advice of the horse veterinarian about his nagging pains — clearly isn’t about the money. At the track, his reputation precedes him, and his relationship with trainer-boss Ruth (a wonderful Molly Parker) is tight and warm enough to resemble a cross between a friendship and a steady work marriage.

The poky naturalism of the early scenes, as captured by Adolpho Veloso’s handheld lens in real locations, indicate we’re in for workplace verisimilitude as much as we are a few days in the life of a seen-it-all jockey. And with a few brush strokes, Collins readily establishes an affable, hardworking mainstay. Whether talking shop with Ruth or trading injury stories with peers (all real jockeys) — if the movie illuminates anything, it’s how much lives are on the line each time they get on a horse — Jackson evokes a chill pride that’s as touching as the private grimaces that betray encroaching vulnerability.

In short order, however, the story awkwardly shoves in goals and obstacles for its protagonist. A new kid on the circuit, Gabriel (Moises Arias), claims to be Jackson’s son from a long-ago relationship, stirring up the jockey’s rueful side about responsibility, while Ruth simultaneously introduces a new horse she purchased herself that she and Jackson believe is a future winner for their partnership. And then there’s that increasingly uncooperative right hand of Jackson’s, which hasn’t been getting its own insert shots for nothing.

The veteran actor’s turn as a longtime rider seeing the finish line ahead taps into the soul of that profession.

“Jockey” belongs to a subset of indie filmmaking that wants the benefits of a narrative but within the loose framework of a documentary-like hang. (Count Chloé Zhao as the current master of this format.) But while Bentley’s compassion for this marginalized life is there, his skill at mixing story cliches and vérité style is wanting.

The best moments sit on their own, like an extended night of drinking, dancing and revelation between Jackson and Ruth that becomes a heartwarming depiction of adult closeness and professional honesty, and an ethereally poignant, painterly moment at a river between Jackson and some wild horses that’s practically Malickian.

Collins, of course, is the movie’s sturdy emotional spine, and Bentley wisely shoots him as such. Sometimes his classically chiseled features look aged by time and experience, and in other scenes, his eyes look freshly renewed by what could be.

It’s disappointing that the story machinations get in the way, because the lived-in heft of Collins’ turn is better suited to the atmospheric portrait inside “Jockey,” the one scored for tonal moodiness by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, than the story that shoehorns in a dubiously engineered motivation late in the film for added drama it didn’t need. Collins being the ultrafine actor he is, however — focused and in balance with whatever the movie needs — he clears the final stretch, anyway, like a champion.

'Jockey'

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles


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