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Stumbling Out of the Gate

Adolpho Veloso/Sony Pictures Classics

Jockey (2021)

“The Rider,” about an injured rodeo star living on a South Dakota reservation, was a much-admired little gem that catapulted the career of an auspicious filmmaker. It made such an impression that her follow-up would warrant a full-fledged Oscar campaign. That filmmaker was of course Chloé Zhao; and her follow-up was “Nomadland.” To try to bottle that lightning twice would be a fool’s errand. But the distributor of “The Rider,” Sony Classics, seems to have another one just like it in the hopper three years later.

“Jockey” is about a horse racer, Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.), whose career is nearing its end due to injury, and who after some initial hesitation bonds with a young man, Gabriel (Moisés Arias), who claims to be his son.

Director-cowriter Clint Bentley seems to hail from the same indiewood school of filmmaking as Ms. Zhao, with all these handheld shots at sunset accompanied by a trancey score – except that Ms. Zhao seems to have more of an affinity for nonprofessional actors, and that characters in “The Rider” are indigenous people.

“Jockey” plays out exactly as one would expect. It’s redemptive and moving. But one has to wonder why we, the viewers, are repeatedly asked to empathize with assholes who probably voted for Donald Trump and rejected Covid vaccination. Jackson is the personification of middle America as projected by the media: the white working class – a demographic disproportionately catered to by journalists and the major political parties, hijacking the civil discourse against the interests of everyone. He’s the classic bitter misanthrope we’re supposed to romanticize, who spurns others due to past heartaches of his own doing.

For decades, filmmakers have wanted us to believe that underneath this tough exterior lies a heart of gold. But after the entire Trump presidency, the entire pandemic and the entire Black Lives Matter movement, who has the emotional bandwidth to be compassionate toward the exact people who deliberately make things difficult for the rest of us? Yet they routinely get redemption arcs in narrative fiction, rather than innocent people of color who succumb to police brutality. When people show they are selfish pricks, we should believe them and save our sympathies for those who are deserving.


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