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Sundance 2021: Jockey, Wild Indian, Superior

Jockey,” the last film to screen as part of the festival’s US Dramatic Competition, affirms that boxers are on their way out, and horse riders are in when it comes to cinematic masculine poetry (also see: "Lean on Pete," "The Mustang," "The Rider," etc.) Directed by Clint Bentley, the story tells of a horse jockey in his twilight, an athlete built of deep training and experience looking to prove himself with one last race. The movie was recently picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (meaning you could have chance of seeing it sooner than later), and I'm curious as to how a non-Sundance crowd will take to it.

What matters most with a movie like this is the rider, and Clifton Collins Jr. is a great face to follow throughout. Including him in nearly every scene, the script gives us more of Collins than we’ve been able to see in previous roles, so there's an excitement off the bat in watching his familiar face go to such emotional depths, or in seeing him captivate extended shots that show him in action, during and after an exhausting ride. 

His character Jackson is wise about his life's passion, and has that confidence when he talks to Ruth (Molly Parker), a horse owner who has known him for a long time. But Jackson is confused about a great deal of things in his past, including his own legacy when a young wannabe played by Moises Arias shows up and claims to be his son. This revelation, handled commendably with little melodrama from the script by Bentley and Greg Kwedar, leads the story to numerous reflective scenes, with Collins’ performance always feeling lived-in, and natural. There is an ease to this work, and if “Jockey” reminds more people of his expansive talents, it’s a winner already. 

"Jockey" leads with austerity far more than story, and there's just not a whole lot going on outside of Collins' work. In turn, its overt style becomes both its defining feature and its weakness. Bentley and cinematographer Adolfo Veloso use a great deal of sun-kissed, magic hour shots, many of which are impossibly beautiful and painterly (including one on a river, as Jackson sees horses playing while the sun sets in the distance), but they create an almost one-note statement, especially as these compositions are overzealously repeated. It more emphasizes how much “Jockey” finds pretty ways to say nothing particularly new, aside from contextualizing age, legacy, and mortality in a weary horse jockey's last ride. Pair that with the score, the kind that sounds like an 88-piece orchestra tuning up and could be easily be used in an overly serious jeans commercial, and "Jockey" has a grandiosity that it can only dream about. Though Collins is excellent, "Jockey" is a requiem with a considerably smaller range in comparison. 

Premiering at the festival as part of the US Dramatic Competition, “Wild Indian” marks the directorial debut of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.. It has the markings of a director still finding his full cinematic voice, often choosing screenwriting mechanics or indulgent atmosphere, but he has two robust performances in his leads, who make this a parallel character study with two strong faces. "Wild Indian" seeks to be poignant and audacious, and yet sometimes the script's clenched fist is more like a heavy hand.

“Wild Indian” is the story of two friends, Mokwa and Ted-O, who live on a reservation in Wisconsin in the 1980s. Mokwa lives in a violent home with an abusive father, a living situation that instills a quiet rage inside the boy. Mokwa ends up taking that mutated fear out on a classmate in a sudden, unspeakable act with a rifle. Mokwa’s friend Ted-O helps with the burial. The act messes them up in different ways, as evidenced by the film's jump to modern times—Mokwa is now living in California, is known as Michael Peterson (Michael Greyeyes), and works for some bland company (with Jesse Eisenberg as his excitable boss). But Michael is lying to himself, and has damned himself to isolation by not facing what he did and instead constructing a new identity. He has a loving wife (Kate Bosworth) and a new child on the way, but he is totally removed from a sincere relationship, rendering him a type of sociopath whose gaze is more unsettling as the movie goes on. 

There is much less dishonesty with adult Ted-O (Chaske Spencer), who is introduced when released from prison (not related to the crime, as a job interview later reveals). He has a face tattoo and the words "OJIBWE" tattooed on his neck, the name of a tribe he is not ashamed to be a part of. Ted-O has a deeper connection to family than Mokwa ever did, and he returns home to his sister and his nephew. And though he struggles to feel worthy of taking a place in the house, he exhibits a sense of rejuvenation. But the past weighs on him, and the second half of the film has him venturing to confront Mokwa. 

Corbine’s story has enough strong ideas, it’s more that its drawn out editing (the first act especially) and overheated dramatic beats easily reduce the full momentum it needs for poignancy. But at least he has Greyeyes and Spencer for the script's at times shocking rumination on swallowed rage, and moral crossroads that leave these two men visibly distraught, whether they can express such pain or not. Both of them give emotionally rich performances that can cut through the film’s more maudlin tendencies. 

Even more than Greyeyes' formidable work, I was particularly struck by Chaske, who initially enters the movie as a full-force, intense version of Ted-O. Scene by scene, he shows the heartbreaking side of this anger, physically embodying the exhausting option of choosing to stop the circle of violence, or passing it on for the sake of personal justice. In one of the film's most effective moments, which proves Corbin as an intriguing director of performance, Chaske stands at a doorway with a truth he has held back for so many years. He seeks freedom from it, and aside from being such a huge display of bubbling emotion, it's a clear result of so much internal storytelling. Chaske puts an incredibly vivid face to the movie’s larger, resonating idea that stoicism is just a masquerade for horrific repression. 

Erin Vassilopoulous' “Superior” has got to be one of the most intentional directorial debuts playing the festival. It's the kind of movie in which you can only imagine the vision boards and scrapbooks and planning that went into pre-production. Along with the rich color palette from the film stock, you want to love "Superior" based on such a visual commitment. But while that intention sucks you in, the story leaves you floundering. 

The year is 1987, and the production design from Maite Perez-Nievas has done an incredible job in recreating it as a type of period-accurate but stylized fantasy world. The script by Vassilopoulous and Alessandra Mesa presents the juxtaposing lives of two twin sisters, one named Vivian (Ani Mesa) who has given her life over to being a stay-at-home housewife and trying to get pregnant with her husband Michael (Jake Hoffman); the other named Marian (Alessandra Mesa) who drops in one day hoping to hide out from a bit from an abusive boyfriend named Robert (Pico Alexander). It's been six years since they've seen each other, but their reunion reinstates their bond, especially as they try to understand the life choices the other has made, and the male forces that have steered those decisions. And because of their twin powers, they realize it’s easy to switch and take the other's life position, especially after aligning with hair color and style. Not even the stoner at Marian's job at the ice cream shop will realize the difference. The music throughout this experiment tells us to pay heed, but even flashbacks to Robert's horrific behavior are muddled as to whether that's what we should be worried about. 

Something very strange is happening with this movie, and not in a good way—you can practically feel it resisting any urge to be overtly funny, dramatic, or trippy despite its setting and almost parodic approach to suburbia. Even the scenes of them switching their lives have an ordinary quality to them, leading to little. Numerous, extended scenes just lay flat. And once the movie’s larger story rises to its pastel surface, it's too late. The friction between their contrasting lives is not enough to give this narrative the energy it needs, and both their lives prove to not have enough to fill their respective halves of the script. Even by its bloody end after a glacial burn, the movie is too convoluted and far too slow with its intriguing mirroring concept. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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