Movies about old warriors often follow a well-thumbed playbook. The hero — often an athlete, though sometimes a soldier, cowboy, outlaw or spy and almost inevitably a guy — wearily shakes off the dust, girds his loins and faces the next, perhaps final chapter. And then he climbs back in the fray, the ring, the saddle. “It’s about how hard you can get hit,” in the words of Rocky Balboa, the patron saint of cinema’s comeback olds, “and keep moving forward.”
The light is beautiful in “Jockey,” an enjoyable old-warrior movie with a surprising sting, even if the bones and story are creaky. By human years, Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.), who’s meant to be in his mid-40s, isn’t all that aged. By professional racing standards he’s an antique. (The celebrated jockey Gary Stevens came out of retirement twice and even finished second at age 52 in the 2015 Kentucky Derby before retiring for good a few years later.) A well-respected veteran of racing’s lower ranks, Jackson works and broods at Turf Paradise, a (real) track in Arizona where thoroughbreds and quarter horses are stabled, trained and raced amid a hive of trainers, jockeys, grooms and miscellaneous others.
Sentimental yet also trickier and more complex than its gleaming surfaces suggest, “Jockey” is a portrait of a man facing his mortality or at least professional redundancy. Worn out and visibly ragged, Jackson doesn’t look like a man with a wide-open future. He’s suffering from an enigmatic, agonizing malady that affects different parts of his body though mostly his hands, which at times violently tremble, a problem given that a crop is a tool of his trade. He carefully hides his pain, or almost. But there’s no obscuring that he’s carrying some excess weight, too, another liability given that he’s already conspicuously on the tall side for the job.
Movies set against the backdrop of professional horse racing often focus on the ride, not the rider, and the emphasis tends to be less on the animals and more on the struggles and victories of their human handlers: their owners, trainers, and kind or cruel attendants. As its title announces, “Jockey” at once follows that familiar script but also tweaks it by narrowing in on one man and, to a lesser extent, the world that he embodies. At its finest — and with help from nonprofessionals, including real jockeys like Logan Cormier — it brings you into shabby back rooms in which riders pray, bare scars and anxiously, excitedly, wait for the next race.
Directed by Clint Bentley, who wrote the script with Greg Kwedar, the movie doesn’t stay long in those bleak rooms. As the filmmakers announce in the first scene, a moody overture set against a prettily darkening sky, they are too romantic, just not about horse racing. They’re soft on Jackson. Counterintuitively, the filmmakers have set their sights beyond the track and the winner’s circle, and there’s little racing or riding in the movie and not even many horses. Instead, they show you the physical toll, how this life gets into the body, shapes and changes it, and worse. They also make smart use of Collins’ eloquent face, which ebbs and flows with emotion, its creases deepening when Jackson is alone with his pain.
His story and suffering have also been thickened with some melodramatic difficulties, including with a trainer, Ruth (Molly Parker), though mostly with a younger jockey, Gabriel (Moises Arias). Both the trainer and the other rider have something they want from Jackson. Ruth has a new horse that she thinks might go the distance; Gabriel has a hazy background that needs some clarification. So, in diner booths and around late-night campfires, they circle one another, poking and prodding, teasing and sharing. And repeatedly, these three very fine performers demonstrate just how much dramatic juice and appreciable tenderness they can squeeze from what starts to feel like exceedingly well-trod material.
Some of that familiarity comes from the old-warrior template, which however narratively labyrinthine or elliptical tends toward the affirmative, the triumph of the human spirit and all that aspirational jazz. “Jockey” works hard not to bum you out and to that end it studiously ignores the ugliness of contemporary horse racing, most notably its doping scandals and ghastly horse deaths (including at Turf Paradise). Instead, the movie leans into the beauty of Jackson’s world with images of towering palm trees and roaming mustangs, and with many, many scenes set in both dawning and fading light. In one amusing exchange at dusk, Jackson announces that he loves this time of day; presumably he is also a Terrence Malick fan.
Like some other recent independent movies that take place in the more unexplored margins of life beyond the big city — on the road, in a prison, in a rodeo — “Jockey” circles around questions of individualism and stoicism and, by extension, how Hollywood has framed the American character. Despite all the beauty shots in the movie, the light that softens Jackson’s world also fades, replaced by a melancholy that can feel eulogistic: It’s mourning again in America. Time and again, Jackson seems inevitably headed toward the easy out, a trajectory that the filmmakers play with and, in crucial moments, complicate. He meets up with an old flame and searches for answers, lingering in a light that is invariably swallowed in shadows.
Rated R for language. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.