By Robert Koehler
The sun is setting on the career of Phoenix-based jockey Jackson Silva, literally, in Jockey, an old-fashioned sports movie that has inexplicably become one of the hits of this year’s North American festival circuit. It was one of the few acquisitions by Sony Pictures Classics at Sundance, a testimony to either how little there was to pick from in that festival, or how conservative American distributors have become. (In truth, a bit of both.) Just because a movie comes from a good place—and this one does, created by filmmaking collaborators Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar and inspired by Bentley’s father’s experiences as a jockey—does not make it good itself. Jockey is as tired and worn as its protagonist, a melodrama that could’ve been conceived with little alteration six or more decades ago.
The movie appears to be aware of its datedness, wearing on its sleeve the badge of old-school authenticity. The story has Jackson on his last legs as a rider at the Turf Paradise track, facing the end of the line. But sure enough, there are promises of last-minute glory: his trainer, Ruth, brings a fresh horse full of vim and vigour, and the up-and-coming jockey who appears primed to take Jackson’s place might very well be…wait for it…Jackson’s son.
This is all played at a level of impressive naturalism (the insider conversation around the track, the small details of track life, the medical risks of jockeying), and the cast—Clifton Collins Jr. as Jackson, Molly Parker as Ruth, and Moisés Arias as the young jockey—integrates well with an ensemble of actual racetrack veterans. But solemnity seeps steadily into the drama, and the story is all creaky, contrived formula. Nearly every scene shot by cinematographer Adolpho Veloso is at “magic hour,” that pre-dusk period cherished by photographers looking for expressive pretty pictures, but intended here as a representation of Jackson’s slow fade. It’s hard to remember a more obvious deployment of an already overused technique (thank you, Chloé Zhao), which is part and parcel of the entire project.