Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 24, 2002)
Dogfight seems like the epitome of the indie movie model. A small tale of romance that takes place mostly in one night, it lacks grand scope or scale and keeps things basic. From that simplicity, however, emerges a lovely and moving tale.
Set in November 1963, Dogfight introduces us to the “Four B’s”, a crew of four Marine buddies set to ship to Okinawa the following day. As part of their last evening in the States, their leader, Berzin (Richard Panebianco), arranges for them to participate in a “dogfight”. Each soldier chips in some money and then tries to find the ugliest date. The one who brings the least attractive woman to the dance wins a cash prize.
We watch the comic efforts of the boys to obtain their dates and then start to focus on Cpl. Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix). After a number of failed attempts, he meets a waitress named Rose Fenny (Lili Taylor) at a coffeeshop. A shy aspiring folksinger, he eventually sweet-talks her into accompanying him to the club, where they meet the other guys and their dates.
Rose doesn’t “win” the dogfight, though she earns honorable mention when she vomits in the bathroom. There she hears the whole sordid story of the dogfight when Berzin argues with his winning date Marcie (E.G. Daily) over the prize money; Marcie was a “ringer” who knew the set-up from the start. Understandably angry, Rose confronts Birdlace and whacks him a few times before she leaves in tears.
Apparently upset with her reaction, Birdlace heads to her home and convinces her to grab some eats with him so he can make it up to her. From there, most of the rest of the film follows their evening together, as they get to know each other better. It also alternates with shots of the other three “B’s” as they go through their own night of more typical Marine debauchery.
Much of Dogfight seems predictable and even somewhat farfetched. For example, we never really understand what makes Birdlace chase after Rose. The two didn’t connect all that strongly before she learned of the dogfight scheme, so what provoked him to care about her feelings? Granted, Birdlace shows some emotions beneath the surface that his pals seem to lack, but I still think that it seems unlikely a real-life Eddie run after Rose.
In addition, Dogfight occasionally tries a little too hard to place itself in a position of social crossroads. Its chronological setting seems somewhat precious, as it takes place only days before the assassination of President Kennedy. Many view that event as a major turning point for the Sixties. It can be argued that the way we perceive the Sixties – as a time of social upheaval and whatnot – really started on November 22, 1963. Though obviously a lot of the societal groundwork already existed before that tragedy, Kennedy’s death could represent the loss of innocence, and Dogfight latches onto the somewhat naïve tone with which we connect to the era. It also tosses out some “hindsight” sequences that put the viewer ahead of the characters, such as a light discussion of Vietnam.
Those elements come across as though the writer tried too hard to import social relevance to his tale. Dogfight doesn’t need it, as the movie works well enough on its own. The key to the film stems from the relationship between Rose and Birdlace. Although I just argued that parts of that pairing seem hard to believe, the actors make it totally realistic.
Both leads provide solid work, but Taylor really makes the movie run. She seems totally credible through the myriad of emotions she displays. From her innocence and naiveté to her stubborn streak to her anger, Taylor creates a winning and likable character who never devolves into the pathetic ugly girl. She adopts the quiet and shy tone of a woman who never feels attractive, but she never calls attention to herself in that way. Instead, Taylor allows Rose to become charming and lovely all on her own.
Phoenix’s performance as Birdlace lacks quite the same heft, but he actually gets the more challenging role of the two. From start to finish, Birdlace remains something of an enigma. I already noted that I never quite understood why he ran after Rose, and other moderately confusing actions occur elsewhere in the movie. The key is that I don’t think Eddie knows why he acts this way. Does he really care about Rose or does he just want to get laid before he heads overseas? Phoenix keeps the character at a nice distance from the audience, which means we continually guess about his motivations. At first his performance seemed a little stiff to me, but the more I thought about his work, the more I realized how much depth he brought to Eddie.
In the end, Dogfight provides one of the more compelling and least sentimental period love stories I’ve seen. It portrays some fairly realistic characters and benefits from outstanding performances. The movie suffers a few minor misfires along the way, but overall it feels like a sweet and quietly moving piece.
Trivia note: when the three “B’s” get into a fight at a bar, you’ll note a very young Brendan Fraser as one of the opposing sailors.