Monday, December 07, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Dogfight

Dogfight (1991) 8/10
It's November 1963. A group of Marines on liberty has a "dogfight;" a contest to see who can bring the ugliest date. Corporal Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) brings Rose (Lili Taylor), but finds there's more to her than he'd thought. Directed by Nancy Savoca.

This is a waaaay below-the-radar movie (the IMDb tells me it was almost but not quite direct-to-video). Hanging out on movie discussion boards, I end up hearing about, and renting, an awful lot of obscure and interesting movies, but I had never heard of this one until my sister and I were discussing Lili Taylor (we do that sometimes) and she mentioned this movie. So I added it to my Netflix, but you know how that goes, it's a big list. Then we were discussing Lili Taylor again (we do that sometimes) and it came up again, so I moved it to the top of my list, and here we are.


Dogfight exists in the small spaces between things said. It is not interested in being demonstrative. There aren't a lot of histrionics in this film, and opportunities to go overboard are kind of shied away from. There was one spot in particular where I felt like the movie was telling me, 'Don't worry, we're not going there,' in a way I appreciated. For example, most of the action takes place on the night of November 21, 1963. The Kennedy assassination looms, and indeed, we ultimately see a news report, and people's faces as they watch. But the assassination is not a centerpiece of the film. It is more that, in the days before, we are breathing the last of a particular kind of air; an innocent air that Americans will never again breathe. We don't need to see a lot of weeping and rendering of garments to know that.

When Eddie Birdlace picks up Rose because he spots her as a "dog" he's a jerk, but warm enough that we understand why Rose says yes. Later, Rose finds out what kind of invitation it actually was, and it is in the course of his efforts at apology that the audience, Rose, and Eddie himself discover that he cares about being kind, and decent, and a gentleman.

Contrasting Eddie and Rose's gentle and tentative evening are Birdlace's three buddies on a more typical leave. The four of them comprise the "Four Bees;" four Marines who became friends standing in formation in alphabetical order (their names begin with B). After the dogfight, Eddie goes off on his own while the other Bees drink, get in fights, get tattooed, and get serviced by a prostitute. Eddie is one of these men after all, even if he is also the guy seeking forgiveness for insulting a nice girl.

Rose is not just a "nice girl" and the object of Eddie's self-realization. She's a complex and human character. Intensely awkward, she is obsessed with folk music and longs to change the world through peaceful action, but she's tied to a family-owned coffee shop and a mother who appears strict and controlling. As the proto-hippie opposite a military man, she could easily be shrill or cliché, but she's also observant and self-possessed. She challenges Eddie when he starts in being nasty to a snooty maitré de, and because he is being nasty, and because it won't end well, her challenge isn't just some peacenik versus soldier scenario, but an angry boy with no life skills being schooled by a girl with nothing on her plate that pleases people except a sweet nature and a pocketful of insight. I like that she goes along with Eddie, but doesn't swallow bullshit for the sake of going along. I like that she finds a way to express herself in a way that is uniquely hers, and I like the way she makes her own decisions, so that ultimately it is Eddie being led by Rose, not the other way around.

I imagine there must be ten thousand ways for this movie to have ended the wrong way. I was surprised by the ending, and kind of said "wha?," and then I was terribly, terribly pleased.