Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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Horses have a way of turning us all into poets. “I saw her in the stall, and I knew,” says a character in Jockey about a thoroughbred she bought at auction. “It’s the way she watches the world.” Another explains his horse is named Hello Sunshine because, at the moment he was born, “an arc of sunlight landed on his head.” Jockey, by first-time feature director Clint Bentley, leans in to the poetry of the equine, finding both tragedy and redemption among the racetracks and trailers of the American Southwest. 

Viewers will notice that nearly every scene in Jockey is set during the magic hour, those fleeting moments of stillness just after the sun has risen or before it has set. For Bentley, it might be a shortcut to aesthetic beauty, but thematically, it tracks. Athletes will tell you that those are the hours in which champions are made, and Jockey certainly features its share of pre- and post-race training scenes. More than that, everyone in Jockey is facing either the dawn or dusk of their career. Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) is an aging legend whose time in the saddle is nearing its end. His partnership with trainer Ruth Wilkes (Molly Parker) is solid, but he knows she’ll move on from him as soon as his body, which has suffered too many violent falls to count, quits on him. When Gabriel (Moises Arias), a young jockey working his way up, arrives claiming to be Jackson’s son, it inspires a rush of complicated feelings. Jackson wants a legacy, but he’s not ready to let go. 

It’s a story we’ve heard before. While Jockey might have benefited from a little more creativity in its plotting, its conventions are imbued with feeling by the earnest, committed performances of its cast. There’s a neat symmetry between Collins, a veteran character actor in a long-overdue lead role, and Jackson; neither knows when they will get another shot and are determined to make the most of this one. Jackson is a smooth talker who can charm trainers and owners, but Collins teases out a hard-earned vulnerability behind his languid Texas cool. The people he chooses to keep nearby seem to draw it out of him. Arias plays Gabriel as a boy learning the rules of a man’s game, trying to match his father’s macho posturing but inevitably falling short, while Parker’s earnestness cuts through alpha-male bullshit like a hot knife through butter. The unabashedly romantic way Parker’s Ruth gazes at Jackson helps us see him as a person who might have value even after his racing days are over. 

With a strong trio of central performances, Jockey could have simply been an engaging character piece, but it’s further enriched by its naturalistic flourishes. Certain exchanges feel improvised, with stumbles and interruptions that are far too awkward to have been scripted. Bentley wisely cast real-life jockeys in supporting roles, which gives the film an authentic, almost documentary-like feel, and makes the slightly undercooked script easier to forgive. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Jackson and the other jockeys sit in a circle, sharing their stories about horrific injuries and economic hardships. If you ever doubted that jockeys are not serious athletes, this scene quiets those thoughts. It shows that, while horse racing is clearly a brutal sport for its unwilling animals, it’s only marginally less punishing for its humans. 

Although it finishes strong, Jockey stumbles a little in the final straightaway. Its pace is so leisurely, perhaps as a purposeful subversion of other sports movies, that it never picks up any speed, and the final moments lack the drama we have been conditioned to expect. There is no buildup of tension at the finish line. Instead, it basks in the stillness of its magic hour, gently retreating from even its defining conflicts so as to not spoil such a beautiful moment. We never know how many more we’re going to get. 

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Jockey is in theaters Jan. 21.