If Oscar voters remembered Clifton Collins Jr.'s work in "Jockey" — or even saw it — he'd be winning best actor this year.
"Jockey" debuted a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival and seems to have gotten lost in subsequent months, although Collins is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his towering performance as the title character. From the beginning of the film, it's clear retirement should be imminent for 50-ish Jackson Silva, who can't recall how many times he's broken his back after falling off horses. The problem is he has no idea what might come next.
Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar's script is wobbly and bears a strong resemblance to "The Wrestler," another drama about a terse, faded sportsman coming to terms with the wreckage of the personal life he neglected. But "Jockey's" backstage peek at the unhealthy world of racing is fascinating and the movie glows whenever its camera shifts to Collins' face. Luckily, that's often.
Bentley, who also directed, boldly chooses to capture an entire race without showing a single horse — just Jackson's face as Collins, on horseback, registers worry, instinct, tension and ecstasy. Collins is so expressive that Bentley repeats the technique with a subsequent race, and darned if it doesn't work again. Another reason to give the actor so much face time? Jackson lies a lot to the other characters but Collins' eyes tell us when he's doing it.
People who've been sidelined by Jackson's single-minded focus on racing keep surfacing in "Jockey," including a child he doesn't know (those are the scenes where the writing gets dodgy) and a woman who stuck by him much longer than seems reasonable. Played by Molly Parker with an unusual combo of compassion and unease, she's the one person in Jackson's life who can be direct with him. When she says, "You've got to tell a horse when it's time to stop," we all know she ain't talking about a horse.
But can Jackson stop, if it means giving up the thing he loves and facing the messes he has left behind? That's very much up in the air, especially when he visits a friend in a hospital and nods in agreement when the friend says, "I ain't afraid of death. I'm just afraid of not being able to ride."
"Jockey" is a low-budget affair — that's another reason to focus on Collins' face and let off-camera noise tell the story — but it's beautifully shot by cinematographer Adolpho Veloso. His low-to-the-ground, wide-angle images frame Jackson against cloudy, Western skies, as if to emphasize both that he's alone in this world and that there's a ceiling on the possibilities open to an uneducated man whose main skill is that his bones mend pretty well.
Veloso, Bentley and Collins stick with what works in the quiet finale of "Jockey." You guessed it. It's a silent shot of Collins' face, an enigmatic smile seeming to indicate that Jackson finally has reached some conclusions.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for language.
Where: Lagoon Cinema.