Clifton Collins Jr. contemplates life at the racetrack in "Jockey."

I’ve said it before: Great character actors deserve at least one starring vehicle in their careers. Clifton Collins Jr. is a great character actor. The trim 51-year-old Angeleno from a family of Mexican actors is gifted with a face that’s memorably off-kilter. He has spent this century creating memorable roles: a gay hitman in Traffic, a military prison inmate in The Last Castle, a cleaning supplies salesman in Sunshine Cleaning, and a tempted border patrol cop in Transpecos. A producer on that last film, Clint Bentley, makes his directorial debut and gives Collins the lead in Jockey, which lit up last fall’s Lone Star Film Festival and now comes to theaters this week.

Collins portrays Jackson Silva, who reckons that he has one or two good years left on the racing circuit as he pulls into Phoenix’s Turf Paradise, even though the muscles in his right arm are starting to twitch uncontrollably. He hears about a youngster named Gabriel (Moisés Arias) who has been winning races and flashing high-level talent. Gabriel’s seeking him out for professional advice, too, before dropping the bombshell on him that he’s Jackson’s son.

So many movies about horse racing are glossy, conventional sports dramas like Seabiscuit that focus on the pageantry of the sport of kings. Bentley goes in for grime, maybe too much so, since Jackson can’t quit the adrenaline and the clamor of race day. The director could have balanced the grit with more of the glamour of racing. This film could be kin to The Wrestler in its exploration of the details of this life away from the track. Jackson lives out of a trailer and pinches pennies, getting X-rayed by the veterinarian to save the expense of a doctor’s visit. Gabriel, relative neophyte though he is, reels off a long list of fractures that he has suffered before saying, “But I haven’t been really hurt.” (Meaning his spine and his skull are intact.) Jackson’s conversations with colleagues (played by real-life jockeys) feel lived-in as well. This is cut with a dreamy score by Bryce and Aaron Dessner as well as Bentley’s visuals of evenings spent outside in the Arizona desert. I find this even more effective than Chloé Zhao’s The Rider in its depiction of life on the margins of horse culture.

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The breeder who employs Jackson (Molly Parker) acquires a horse that’s so unruly that she has to rescue it from the rodeo, and the plot really turns on Jackson discovering how to coax elite-level speed from this animal. Jockey ends with a single-take shot of Jackson running his last race, dismounting, and walking back to the clubhouse knowing that he is truly done. His performance as a man who’s looking for a way to move on to the next phase of his life is what makes this low-key sports drama so conscientious and watchable.

Starring Clifton Collins Jr. and Moisés Arias. Directed by Clint Bentley. Written by Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar. Rated R.