Off The Pace
It’s hard to be a jockey. On its face, you might think to yourself, “It’s a job where you ride a horse. How difficult could it possibly be?” Well…let’s talk about that. To start off, jockeys need to be light. On average, they usually weigh between 108-118 pounds, and maintaining that weight is critical. If they’re too light, they can get flung off a horse in motion. If they’re too heavy, they can slow down their mount. That intense focus on weight means that eating disorders are tragically common for jockeys.
Along with being light, a jockey needs to be strong and have a high degree of balance and dexterity. That’s because they’re on top of an animal that weighs 1200 or so pounds, can move at speeds of forty MPH, and can have a nervous or unpredictable temperament. With that unpredictability comes serious risk. How serious? Well, jockeys have a higher rate of concussions than a player in the NFL, and they also have a wide variety of sprains, tears and broken bones to look forward to.
If you thought that was the extent of their difficulties, consider that the average jockey makes a paltry $52.737 per year.* Per race, they can earn between $28 to over $180,000. Contrast that with the NFL, where the median wage is around $860,000 per year. Does that mean that a professional football player has a job that requires more risk and more skill than a professional jockey? I can answer that for you — hell, no.
There have been a lot — to emphasize, a lot — of movies about aging athletes. People searching for one last shot at victory, redemption, relevance. They’ve been around for a minute, but when done well, they can be excellent and even attract the attention of people like me, people who aggressively don’t care about sports.** Jockey is a film like that, and it deserves to be in the conversation surrounding the Academy Awards.
Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) has been a jockey for a while. A long while, long enough that he deeply understands the contours of horse racing. He can tell you not only when you should lean, but how. He can tell you which horses have the temperaments to be champions and which have the temperament to buck you off and trample you, just for the hell of it.
Jackson is also getting older. It’s harder to maintain his riding weight, harder to bounce back from the injuries. He’s also noticed…something. A tremor in his hand. You can see in his eyes the briefest flashes of fear, but he takes that fear, puts it in a box and shuts the lid tight. Why not? He’s got work to do.
His longtime friend Ruth (Molly Parker) is a trainer, and she has her eye on a new horse, one that has a vanishingly rare combination of temperament and physicality. With the right rider, this horse could be a champion. She asks Jackson if he’s interested, and he is. We also see how she looks at Jackson. The idea of taking their relationship to a new place has certainly crossed her mind.
But life is nothing if not complicated. The arrival of Gabriel (Moises Arias) is certainly a complication. He’s a young man who’s thrown himself into the jockey world. Is it because he’s got a serious case of hero-worship toward Jackson, or is it because he’s really Jackson’s son? Time will tell, and the only constant in Jackson’s life is that horses will run.
“Write what you know,” they say. As the son of a jockey, Clint Bentley certainly took that advice to heart. His father was a jockey and Bentley spent his youth around tracks. His screenplay doesn’t have much of a plot, as such, but it doesn’t really need one. He draws on experiences he surely witnessed, such as a scene where a group of jockeys compare the alarming injuries they sustained during their careers. The script is a vivid character study about a man putting his body at risk day after day, and doing it for a love of the sport and horses.
Understand that Jockey is an independent film with a smaller budget and that there aren’t scenes of high-energy races with thousands of extras cheering. As the director, Bentley knows he’s not making that kind of movie. Instead of “event movie” filmmaking, Bentley utilizes gorgeous cinematography and deliberate pacing to create a fascinating character study. Watch the scene with Jackson and Ruth talking in a trailer. There’s very little movement and no flashy camera work. Instead, Bentley frames the scene just so, allowing the chemistry of the actors to do the heavy lifting.
The cast is a mixture of acting professionals and people involved in horse racing. Throughout the film, performances are natural and subtle. They’re all held together by a thoughtful lead performance by Clifton Collins Jr. If you’ve watched a movie in the last thirty years, there’s an excellent chance you’ve seen Collins. He’s one of those character actors who can play basically anything and has shown up in virtually every genre of film and television. Collins has always been good, and as Jackson, his acting isn’t so much a revelation as it is a reminder. He’s playing a guy who’s macho without being sexist and focused without being obsessive. Jackson is an athlete who likes to win but loves the sport, and he fears that he’s coming to the end of the line. Collins plays the role with such control, intelligence, and creativity. In a just world, he’d win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Jockey doesn’t have a huge budget or obvious scenes of Oscar bait. It’s too smart and too sophisticated for that. Far better for it to be a character study of an interesting man in a fascinating sport. Men like Jackson, actors like Clifton Collins Jr., and movies like Jockey don’t need to bask in the spotlight. It’s enough that they’re there.
*I got that information from the charmingly named www.horseyhooves.com. God, I love the internet.
**That’s not entirely true, dog agility is awesome.