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MOVIE REVIEW

The burden of being human in ‘Jockey’

Clifton Collins Jr. plays an aging legend in Clint Bentley’s directorial debut

Clifton Collins Jr. in "Jockey."Adolpho Veloso/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS via AP/Associated Press

Arched back, taut muscle, a natural hardness that softens with trust. Horses, and to some degree by extension their jockeys, are hypnotic because of the precarious way they orbit control and power. “Jockey,” directed and co-written by Clint Bentley, whose father was a jockey, is preoccupied with a loss of control, a realization of the fragility of the human body.

That fragility, in contrast with the strength of the horse, is, while not novel, still an alluring angle of exploration. The film’s protagonist, Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.), has been working as a jockey with his trainer, Ruth Wilkes (Molly Parker), for decades and is a legend on the equestrian circuit. Now he is older, gaining weight, his body gnarled by years of the unique labor of riding horses professionally — but he thinks he’s fine, that he can still run the tracks almost as well as when he was younger, despite his worsening condition. A cocky upstart jockey, Gabriel Boullait (Moises Arias), approaches Jackson, claiming to be his son. At first, Jackson spurns him, this revelation a new dent in his delusion of unchanged riding prowess. But he soon takes Gabriel under his wing, perhaps as a way of making some peace with his changing body, or maybe as a way to exert control over something else?

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Clifton Collins Jr. (left) and Moises Arias in "Jockey." Adolpho Veloso/Sony Pictures Classics

“Jockey,” which marks Bentley’s directorial debut (he wrote the screenplay with Greg Kwedar), is a gorgeous film, but in a bizarrely empty way. Almost every scene, even in daytime, is shrouded in darkness. Bulbs, lanterns, and lamps bloom and flare in painterly ways, placing characters in chiaroscuro. This aesthetic grammar doesn’t ever justify itself exactly: Little about the story on its own asks for these kinds of frames, and the cinematography shot by director of photography Adolpho Veloso doesn’t really deepen our understanding of the characters. The occasional shots of Jackson clenching and unclenching his hands, testing the strength of his nerves and grip, are drowned in shadow. Much of the film is handheld, and there are effortful strains of documentary influence, but the film lacks the depth and rawness of another film about broken bodies and horses, Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider.”

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It leaves Collins Jr., best known as a character actor in films such as “Traffic” and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” saddled with a lot of work. With inconsistency, he articulates the murkier and subtler aspects of a thinly written character through his physicality, revealing flashes of brilliance. But this feels undermined by directorial choices that don’t embrace or take full advantage of the potential primal nature of the performance. He plays his character laconically, not dynamically. Collins Jr. is best when exploring Jackson’s quiet spiral — his eyes glassy as he loses what counts for control in this film — but the screenplay gives him and other characters too much to carry in the way of exposition. The best moments of the film are channeled through his body, when we can see it. Our understanding of Jackson’s waning virtuosity is seldom experienced, and when it is, it’s in extreme close-up on his face. The visceral sounds of hooves kicking up earth get bullied out by an intrusive faux-ethereal score by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner.

Because we only really see Gabriel through Jackson’s eyes and in relation to him, he ultimately remains a cipher. Arias gets just a few moments to convey being torn between two selves: a young man hungry for a connection to a potential father; and a jockey, ravenous for success, who can see his future at the end of the track. It would be a cinematically amusing justification that Jackson’s envy of Gabriel’s youth, ambition, and potential swallowed up that character’s nuances, but as a viewing experience, the lack of definition is disappointing. It’s a shame given the fertility of the subject matter: danger, thrill, and the body all engaged in this intense sport.

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In a circle with other aging jockeys, riders tell tales of what bones they’ve broken and what parts of them remain intact. It’s a crucial exchange for Jackson and Gabriel, too — their physical brokenness is shared with others but, most importantly, with an audience. Paradoxically, breaking one’s body fixes one’s spirit. In a scene in his trailer, Jackson, wheezing and intoxicated, tells Ruth that he never felt more important than when riding, having so many people’s gazes captured. Shame one can see so little in “Jockey.”

★★ JOCKEY

Directed by Clint Bentley and written by Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar. Starring Clifton Collins Jr., Molly Parker, and Moises Arias. Opens Friday at Landmark Kendall Square. 95 minutes. In English. R (for language)