Sundance 2021 Review: 'Jockey' and Clifton Collins Jr. aim for gold

Clint Bentley’s 'Jockey' stars Clifton Collins Jr. as, you guessed it, a racetrack jockey contemplating the end of his career and one last championship.

The race is about to begin in 'Jockey.'
(Image: © Sundance Institute)

What to Watch Verdict

'Jockey' proves Clifton Collins Jr. is so much more than a supporting player specialist, as the successes of Clint Bentley’s moving drama can largely be attributed to Collins Jr.'s award-worthy performance.


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    🐴 Clifton Collins Jr. praise is real.

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    🐴 The heat of Arizona cinematography.

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    🐴 Captures the imperfect art of moving on with our lives.


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    🐴 Familiar, no doubt.

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    🐴 Some might label it awards bait.

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    🐴 Other audiences might have nothing to connect with.

Jockey is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

With Jockey, Clifton Collins Jr. steps from the shadows of supporting performance infamy and into the saddle of his own veritable awards contender. If it’s any indication, Collins Jr. won Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at 2021’s virtual festivities. Deservedly so, since Clint Bentley’s ode to accepting age with (stubborn) grace and passing generational torches is familiar in concept. The elevating factors here are Collins Jr., his immediate supporting cast, and majestic creatures shown under both free-roaming and racetrack conditions.

Collins Jr. stars as circuit jockey Jackson, whose career pedigree has earned him respect at venues like Phoenix's Turf Paradise. Jackson’s glory years have faded, though, as a longtime hero chases what’s presumably his final dash towards hardware. His joints ache, multiple injuries have caused lasting effects, and doctors express immediate concern. Jackson can’t quit yet; not when Ruth (Molly Parker), who runs the barn he races out of, introduces a rookie horse with the makings of a phenom. Who could fill his boots, anyway? The likes of newbie Gabriel (Moises Arias), who also drops the bombshell possibility that he’s Jackson’s son?

Bentley’s entry into the “deteriorating athlete” and “unexpected proud dad” subgenres of human storytelling shows enough to generate empathy, yet avoids sullen overkills of the emotions known best in these stories. Trepidation over being led out to pasture, as Jackson notices a tremble in one hand. Fears over what comes next, without the notoriety of trotting another speedster around the winner’s circle. Passion is this sensation that many envy when detected in others, in characters like Jackson who can’t fathom existence without the adrenaline chase of immediate rewards. Records, photographs, and prize purses. Collins Jr.’s performance never understates this “addiction,” but also doesn’t belabor dour beats you’ve seen repetitively dramatized. There’s humbleness and authenticity to the pain Jackson feels, along with milestones that substantiate his growth.

Where Jockey differentiates is in the titular profession. Much like how The Wrestler ages Mickey Rourke out of wrestling or, well, insert any recent exemplification in parallel themes, Clint Bentley juxtaposes Jackson’s farewell tour with symbolic surroundings. It’s not just about a winded Jackson failing to cut weight with the same vigor as Moises Arias’s energized young buck. Jackson gazes upon stables of learning thoroughbreds - strikingly groomed racetrack specimens beginning their careers - in tandem with reflective hardships about leaving the spotlight. The horses Jackson trains to be the next Seabiscuit versus those prancing free, living their unassuming lives next to quiet, gurgling riverbeds. Bentley does well to signify “the wild” and “the tame;” “the driven” and “the listless.”

As Jockey exists outside Jackson’s gate-jumper journey, Collins Jr. considers his devotion to a dangerous, life-altering craft that is just as quick to label you a legend than encourage your retirement. Collins Jr. makes it personal, even. It’s a universal sentiment, specific to the same jockeys I’d watch circle the Saratoga grounds every summer, but pulls back the curtain on their achy, undervalued suffering. The intentional dehydration, their family’s worries after emerging from a coma caused by a hoof's impact. As Jackson sits in on a Jockey’s Anonymous (?) meeting, his face reads stern contemplation while colleagues confess their traumas. And yet? Jackson rides again, chasing that unquenchable thirst for importance and partnership alongside a take-no-guff Ruth who Molly Parker portrays with such rustic presence.

In ways, the film becomes a piece of Southwestern poetry. From Adolpho Veloso’s cinematography that’s obsessed with desert landscapes so beautifully captured during Golden Hour warmth, to Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s ominous score that dwells on quiet lulls. Those treacherous notes sustain our on-edge cautions even during celebratory events. The bond between Jackson and Gabriel grumbles and stumbles through makeups for lost time with genuine fallibility that’s rough-around-the-edges but wholly understandable. Our legacies, our worthiness, our outros; Bentley never betrays the horrors of mortality. There’s a sustained tenderness as Jackson winces, tap-dances, and tequila-shots his way to the finish line.

Jockey is a stallion’s bow befitting the attention both Clifton Collins Jr. and Clint Bentley deserve. Again, it’s not revolutionary or unforeseen - but the story it tells, the emotions it mines, are represented with wholesome gravitas. There’s so much visual storytelling power when Jackson’s shown riding to victory without a spec of dirt kicked in his face versus the losing contests where leaders have him unceremoniously eating earth. Bentley doesn’t need more to sell his narrative’s worth, but the filmmaker extends further anyway by coaxing a somber yet sincerely sweet performance from Collins Jr. at the top of his game. A tale about when the race becomes less about speeding forward and more about falling to the back of the proverbial pack, no matter how much that clashes with your fiercest instincts.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.