Some actors you just take for granted. You see them constantly popping up, beautifully supporting the above-the-marquee names, nailing a killer line here, stealthily stealing a scene or two there. Audiences turn in to the real-life equivalent of the DiCaprio-in-Once-Upon-a-Time-in-Hollywood meme whenever these performers show up. These familiar faces become part of the firmament. You know the type: get in, add some texture to the storytelling, get out. Think versatile, clutch character actors like Clifton Collins Jr., who’s played everything from cops to convicts, Western banditos to carnival barkers, robots to Romulans. He’s almost reliable to a fault, by which we mean you simply expect him to be great whether he’s got one scene or one line — so much so that run the risk of not properly appreciating his talent or what he brings to any given table. Oh it’s that guy again, he’s one of the bank robbers this time, it’s always nice when he’s onscreen, etc.
Odds are you won’t take Collins for granted as easily after seeing Jockey, an award-winner out of Sundance and a Sony Pictures Classic release that the company hopes will haul in more statues before the race is done. (It hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week, i.e. right under the 2021 qualifying wire, and goes wide in early 2022.) His Jackson Silva is a veteran of the horseracing circuit, a man who’s had his share of wins and losses. The years of riding those beasts has taken its toll on him, however, and his body ain’t what it used to be. Silva knows his time on the track is coming to an end, whether he wants it to or not. He’s just hoping that he can be the one to bring the new thoroughbred — “like a swan with teeth” is how he describes this magnificent creature to its trainer, Ruth (Molly Parker) — across the finish line first. There’s also the matter of Gabriel (Monos‘ Moises Arias), a promising new jockey who claims to be Silva’s long-lost son.
An battered athlete past his peak, a peek into a sports subculture, a life reckoning dotted with father issues and regrets, a risk-it-all chance for one last grab at the brass ring: if this sounds to you like The Wrestler with horses, you’re not that far off. Director and cowriter Clint Bentley’s dad was a professional jockey, and there are little details and small-talk chatter among Silva’s equally been-through-the-ringer peers scattered throughout that lend this character study a frayed sense of authenticity. Aesthethics-wise, the movie buffs up its modest story with beaucoup shots of steeds and men silhouetted against sherbet-colored skies (Adolpho Veloso’s cinematography makes the case that the “magic hour” actually happens every 20 minutes or so), while a score by Aaron and Bryce Dessner — the National twins do seem to be having quite a year as composers — that sounds like an orchestra perpetually tuning up lends avant-gravitas to the proceedings. Speaking of screen greats: Parker is one of those journeymen players that make films and TV shows 33% better by her presence alone, and Arias does the kind of solid, less-is-more work here that suggests he belongs in a character-actor canon right next to costars.
But let’s be honest: Jockey works because it has an expert rider who knows when to hold back and when to push something from a fast gallop to a sprint. And it’s the joy of watching Clifton Collins Jr. color inside and outside the lines of this would-be champion — a medium-sized fish in a rapidly evaporating pond — that lifts this film up. Silva serves as a showcase for Collins’ talent, to be sure, but the portrayal itself makes you feel like the actor viewed this less as a star vehicle than as a chance for him to humbly give this broken man his humanity back. He’s never been a look-ma-no-hands type of screen performer, and even when Collins was garnering attention in movies like Capote (2005), it was usually in the shadow of others’ go-for-broke work. Yet there’s a generosity to the way he gently digs into the jockey’s slow, reluctant fade into the sunset. Even Collins’ “big” moments (a romantic hook-up interrupted by a health scare, an introductory conversation with Gabriel that goes south, a drunken pity party) get brought back down to earth in a self-effacing way. It’s a great example of how to properly tether a performance for deeper emotional impact.
It’s one a handful of movies this year driven, and in some cases saved by the centrifugal force of a single actor, and if that seems like we’re damning Jockey with faint praise by heaping most of the huzzahs on its lead, all apologies. It’s simply that Collins turns what is a very well-worn notion of the aged warrior going once more unto the breach into something more the sum of its spare parts. For those of us who’ve been enthralled by what Collins has done on the periphery, the chance to see him occupy center stage — and in something so suited to his skill set — is enough to make this worthwhile. But the way in which he keeps both the rest of the cast and the story itself in the pocket without making it feel like a showreel, even down to his final here’s-the-big-payoff sequence, is what makes this special. Collins might shrug off any notion that he’s doing anything here besides chasing down a character’s truth here (he’s been putting in the labor too long to think otherwise). But it’s huge victory lap for this actor nonetheless.