Directed by Nancy Savoca
Cast: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, E.G. Daily, Mitchell Whitfield, Holly Near, Brendan Fraser.
1991 94 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 8, 1998.
Nancy Savoca's "Dogfight" is a virtually unknown gem, and is one of the sweetest, most touching romances of the decade. It was barely released in 1991 by Warner Brothers, who must not have had much faith in such a truthful motion picture, and it shows (since then, they have widely released such gems as 1997's "Batman and Robin," and this year alone, have come out with the likes of "Major League III," and "The Avengers"). "Dogfight," however, is an important film that deserves to be seen, and includes two of the best performances of the 90's.
Set in 1963, primarily during one fateful night, four young Marines stop in a small town for their last night stateside, not knowing the horrors that await them in Vietnam. Together, they decide to participate in the game, "Dogfight," which requires each of them to find the ugliest woman they can find, take her to a party, and then have them judged on the the most unattractive one. The film focuses mostly on Birdlace (River Phoenix, in one of his last movies), who, while looking for a victim, stumbles into a coffee shop and meets Rose (Lili Taylor), an introverted young woman who hides behind frumpy clothes and her love of folk music. They start to talk, and Birdlace asks her to come to the party, and she agrees to it, not believing that someone would actually be interested in her. Birdlace realizes Rose isn't actually "ugly," but it's the best he can do.
That is only the beginning of "Dogfight," a quiet, flawlessly made film, in which not much more should be said, except to say that Birdlace begins to actually like Rose, and it develops into much more of a complex story than it originally seems.
Although the basic plotline may sound cruel and mean-spirited, and it is, at the center of the story is a wonderful, sweet, poignantly written, love story. To get a feel for the type of picture it is, the movie is similar in structure to 1995's "Before Sunrise," which was about two twentysomethings who meet on a train and decide to spend the day together in Venice before going their separate ways. The differences, however, is that this film is set during the Vietnam War and there are much more serious overtones.
If there is one element of "Dogfight" that I could single out as being brilliant in every sense of the word, it is Lili Taylor, who, in one role after the other, gives a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood performance, and this is her best role to date. Her character is so likable that when bad things happen to her, it is heartbreaking and feels unfair. One of the best scenes occurs early on, after she has been humiliated at the Dogfight, and goes home, turns on her folk record in her bedroom, and simply sits down to listen to it. Sure, she has just been embarrassed, but at least she has her music. Most movies wouldn't have the integrity to include such a small, delicate scene, but it is an important moment.
The last ten minutes of "Dogfight" are what makes the movie really special, however, particularly the startlingly powerful last scene, in which nothing is said or explained, but then, nothing needs to be.
©1998 by Dustin Putman