Sometimes, for no discernible reason, great films slip through the cracks into almost total oblivion. Many eventually pick up strong cult followings but some remain deeply buried, waiting to delight the lucky few who unearth them. Nancy Savoca's Dogfight is one of the latter. Despite good reviews and strong commercial potential, Dogfight suffered from an inexplicable lack of distribution. In America it was given a theatrical run by only two cinemas in the whole country while in Europe the film went straight to video. Only the premature death of its star River Phoenix and the subsequent rejuvenation of interest in all his screen work has saved this film from totally vanishing.
Dogfight is set in 1963 and follows a group of Marines on twenty-four hour leave on the night before they ship out for Vietnam (and also, unbeknowst to them, the night before President Kennedy is assassinated). They plan to spend the evening attending what they refer to as a "dogfight", a cruel Marine ritual in which they compete to bring the ugliest date for a cash prize. While scouting San Francisco for potential victims, Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) discovers the shy Rose, a folk music-loving coffee shop waitress who does little else but stay in with her mother every evening. Jumping at the chance of a night out, she agrees to accompany Birdlace to his party but, as the night unfolds and the true nature of the "dogfight" is discovered, Birdlace experiences increasing feelings of guilt that belie his true feelings for Rose.
One remarkable element of Dogfight is just how many other films it reminds me of while remaining totally unique. Its initially cruel-sounding premise brings to mind both Francis Veber's Le Diner de Cons and Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men while the subsequent romantic tale of two individuals connecting over a short period of time evokes Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Dogfight most closely resembles the Linklater film (which it predates) but remains very much a unique experience. The sustained mood of Dogfight is most unusual. It plays like a romantic comedy but with heavily dramatic elements, encapsulated by an ending that recasts the way the viewer processes the previous 90 minutes. The terrific script by ex-Marine Bob Comfort is full of witty and touching scenes but the uniqueness of Dogfight is largely down to director Nancy Savoca, who has created an exquisitely balanced tone and avoided the potential sentimental pitfalls and dramatic cliches that most directors would have pushed towards.
The period detail is modestly and effectively evoked, bringing to mind yet another film, Rob Reiner's Stand by Me, a comparison heightened by the presence of Phoenix in both films. A soundtrack of lesser-heard rock 'n' roll and folk songs subtley accompanies the action and Savoca focuses very much on the characters, rather than shoving a string of period-specific signifiers in our faces. Only the Kennedy assassination element seems superfluous. It is, of course, relevant to the Marines' imminent Vietnam trip but the mention of this destination is enough narrative foreshadowing without heavy-handedly situating the emotionally-pivotal directly beside the historically-pivotal. Fortunately, this narrative blot is treated as something of an afterthought, which highlights its pointlessness.
Dogfight is the epitome of a movie that simply wouldn't work without the right casting. The lead roles of Birdlace and Rose carry so much emotional weight that the wrong actor would cause the entire project to collapse. Fortunately, the leads turn in stunning performances. Lili Taylor, who in truth I have always found a little irritating in other performances, is extraordinarily sympathetic, convincing and multi-layered. Never falling into the trap of playing Rose as a one-dimensional pity figure, she instead makes her a naive but resilient character whose speedy captivation of Birdlace is completely realistic. Phoenix, meanwhile, lives up to his reputation as one of the greatest losses to the acting world, with perhaps the strongest performance I have seen him give. Birdlace is an extremely difficult role to play. He swings between a loud, obnoxious Marine and a sensitive, resourceful human being. The genius of Phoenix's performance is in the grey area between these two extremes. He can never comfortably be one or the other, struggling to stop swearing and boozing while with Rose but also never quite fully immersing himself in the rowdy behaviour of his buddies. The film highlights this by frequently cutting between Birdlace's night out with Rose and the comedy antics of the other Marines.
Like any good character piece, Dogfight does not encourage us to side with one character over the other. Although the very nature of the "dogfight" is abhorrent, we sympathise with Birdlace's subsequent, sincere guilt and attempts to make amends. And while we admire Rose's dedication to her peaceful ideals, we also glimpse a good dose of youthful naivety and immaturity in her reactions to anyone who questions them. Rose believes music and peace can change the world, while Birdlace believes war and guns undoubtedly change the world and a lot quicker. But these conflicting views are never patronised or mocked and the characters never sway towards stock hippy or stereotype military meathead.
Superb set-pieces punctuate the fast-moving flow of the script. An encounter in a snobby restaurant which ends in an unexpected tirade of obscene non-sequiturs is a comic highpoint while a scene in which Rose sings for Birdlace in a deserted cafe is unerringly realistic and unsentimental, making it all the more touching. And the film's climax, which could so easily have been a mawkish cliche, is both beautifully written and directed, leaving the audience with one of the most satisfying ambiguous endings this side of John Carpenter's The Thing.
Dogfight is a film that is perhaps even more endearing for being totally unknown. The intimacy of the narrative is increased by the sense that you really are the only person in the world sharing in this small, romantic moment in time. Having said that, it is a great pity that it has not found the audience it so richly deserves and that it took the tragic death of one of the most promising actors of the last few decades to get Dogfight any attention whatsoever. A film of tremendous emotional resonance, Dogfight is a must for the romantics out there but I'd recommend it to just about anyone. With enormous crossover potential between indie and mainstream markets, the disappearance of Dogfight is a mystifying crime that I will continue to do my best to rectify and perhaps one day it will be afforded the recognition it deserves.