★★★★ / ★★★★
Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) and his Marine friends (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield) are going to be shipped off to Vietnam the next morning, so they figure they deserve to have some fun. After some deliberation, they decide to play a game called “dogfight” in which each player is required to put in fifty dollars in the pot, look for the ugliest girl he can find in San Francisco, and ask her if she wants to go to a party. There, the winner, one who brings the homeliest girl as a date, is to be announced. Birdlace chooses Rose (Lili Taylor), a waitress at her mom’s cafe and an aspiring folk singer.
There is something genuinely sweet, without having to result to sentimentality, about “Dogfight,” written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca. With such a mean-spirited premise, on the level of cruelty of Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” it is most surprising that, slowly, the picture unfolds into a sophisticated romance between two unlikely people: Birdlace, generous in uttering a curse word after every other sentence, and Rose, an opinionated young woman who welcomes love–but not desperate to find it.
The picture has familiar elements, but the writer puts a realistic spin on the events. To spare Rose from humiliation, Birdlace tells his date that maybe they should not attend the party he mentioned earlier, that they should do something spontaneous and go somewhere else to have fun. In most movies of similar breed, it is often that the protagonist realizes that his action is wrong only after the deed has been done. Here, since his change of heart happens earlier than what most of us come to expect, we are allowed to clearly see the point in which his conscience comes knocking hard. While putting lipstick on Rose’s lips, purposefully doing a terrible job to make her appear uglier, something inside Birdlace clicks: applying lipstick on a person is not like spraying graffiti on a wall.
A wall does not have feelings but people do. It occurs to the Marine that perhaps waitress is worth getting to know beyond her physicality. When she inevitably discovers the truth, she is, understandably, outraged. But the screenplay does not get stuck in showing or communicating to us that Birdlace is sorry. Instead, the focus is on what it means to be a young people willing to make a connection, to forge a friendship that will last, and to love the person in spite of and especially his flaws. And with love comes forgiveness. People forgive, some more easily than others, and the film is loyal to that perspective. We may not be ready to forgive Birdlace for participating in the game but Rose is.
During one beautiful night in 1963 San Francisco, Birdlace and Rose go out to dinner and do things that potential couples normally do: tease, flirt, laugh, kiss, and maybe even argue about politics. Their date, a rewarding experience for both, is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Birdlace’ buddies participating in all sorts of activities like getting tattoos of bees, a symbol of their camaraderie, and receiving fellatios from a prostitute in a movie theater. The screenplay does the unexpected once again. Instead of treating the trio with condescension since they neither seem to exhibit remorse toward the women they lured nor are they punished for their actions, the film spends time on the essence of the bonding among the three Marines. There is a sadness to it because it is very possible that not all of them will make it back. They have reason to be scared and acting out is a way of coping.
“Dogfight” avoids glamorous trappings about men meeting women before heading off to war. It is interested in the nuances between the said and unsaid, genuine and forced smiles. It utilizes silence to say a lot–loudly, proudly and clearly through Phoenix and Taylor’s charming and vulnerable eyes–about how being open-minded might lead to self-discovery and human connections one would not have otherwise if one opted to remain within one’s bubble.