Dogfight April 11, 2016
Funny how a film founded on a cruel concept ends up being barefacedly touching and quietly romantic. Dogfight, from 1991, is set in 1963, on the night before a group of young Marines set off for war. All around eighteen, they know little about love, themselves, or the way selfish desire can have a dramatic impact on others. So it’s unsurprising when the friends decide to hold a deplorable contest. All wanting to get with a girl during their last hours of freedom but knowing that all the pretty ones most likely won’t go for a one-night-stand, they hold a competition in which the participants find the ugliest date they can within a brief timespan. If lucky, maybe the date won’t be so ugly, and maybe they might even get laid. Tonally, however, the game is malicious, the young men bonding over their disregard for decency.
Of the bunch, Dogfight is most interested in Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix), a follower who seems to have the best set of morals in his friend group. As the pals split up to go find their “dogs,” Eddie stumbles upon Rose (Lili Taylor), who is plain but certainly not ugly. The folksy daughter of a restauranteur, Rose, shy but kindhearted, is, understandably, unaware of the machinations that underline Eddie’s asking her out. Never having been on a date in her life, let alone receiving interest from the opposite sex, she is ecstatic, having a fun night out until she learns the truth.
Rose is humiliated, but Eddie, unexpectedly, figures himself to be drawn to her. Desperate to cheer her up and get to know her better before he becomes a full-time Marine again, he asks her out again, this time with sincerity. Reluctantly, she accepts. Within the few hours they have, the twosome spend the rest of the night together, having Before Sunrise-esque talks that eventually lead to them becoming bedfellows. But there’s something special to be found in this brief courtship — Eddie gives Rose the romantic experience she’s never received but has always wanted, and Rose provides Eddie with a newfound maturity that may very well erase his cockiness for sensitivity.
I want to call Dogfight minor, as it’s been twenty-five since its release and few remember it, and as it’s nothing new in terms of young love depicted in the movies. But there’s something deeply stirring about it; is it the way Taylor and Phoenix’s connection feels genuine, the way we fall in love with Taylor idiosyncrasies, the way Phoenix’s performance feels layered in the way that it reflects how young men put on a devil-may-care front to disguise a vulnerable epicenter? Dogfight remarkably makes these characters vividly pragmatic, our time with them feeling all too brief because we learn to care about them so immensely. But that only works as yet another reason why the film is so rousing — it makes the preciousness of Eddie and Rose’s night together ache magnificently. An optimistic ending suggests that more is in store for them, which is a gratifying surprise for a film so repeatedly somber.
So maybe Dogfight is minor, meant to be forgotten like all the other passing romances of a bygone era. But uncover what it has to offer and you’ll be stunned by how much it moves you; Phoenix and Taylor, two underrated performers of their generation, make for an unconventional pairing worth rooting for. It is a subtle, melancholy, but sweet romantic film. Shame Eddie lost the dogfight,