At the risk of too much hyperbole, I believe Dogfight to be one of the greatest films ever made. But unfortunately not many have seen it. Director Nancy Savoca demonstrates some of the finest camerawork and vision put to screen. It is a shame that her career never took off after demonstrating such exemplary work. This is further evidence that the studios continually shun extraordinary female talent, yet grant male directors unlimited opportunities. Dogfight centers around “Birdlace” Eddie (River Phoenix) and his fellow Marines who are about to be shipped off to Vietnam. This was pre-Kennedy assassination, when the Vietnam conflict new and not in America’s consciousness. The Marine buddies look for women to unwillingly participate in a “dogfight,” a game where whoever brings the ugliest date wins a prize. Eddie comes upon a shy aspiring folk singer named Rose, (Lili Taylor) but he eventually grows fond of her despite his malicious intentions.
At its heart, Dogfight is about gender performance. River Phoenix brings the simmering, quiet and clenched James Dean-esque angst to his character. Birdlace performs the collective hyper-machismo of his fellow soldiers: swearing, drinking excessively and abrasively abrading women with sexist jokes. Birdlace and his friends run the world and the women are their mere playthings. Yet Phoenix masterfully hints Birdlace’s inner anxieties. Underneath it all, Birdlace detests this behavior and truly does not want to hurt Rose. This is yet another performance that makes one mourn the abrupt loss of his promising life. Lilli Taylor gives exemplary work as well. She constructs a rich character that is both childlike and mature, feisty and tender. The scene where she finds out the true nature to the party rips through your heart. Rose is aghast at the young men’s vicious treatment of women based solely on their appearance. Our visual obsessed Tinder culture still grapples with such issues. Rose and Birdlace eventually reconcile and spend the night together, mining through their differences and bonding despite them. Rose wants to change the world with folk music, whereas Birdlace believes “if you want to change the world, pick up a gun and start shooting.” Both negotiate the societal gender constrictions that are placed upon them.
Savoca displays a vast sensitivity to the intentions of each scene with her impressive camerawork. A battle sequence towards the end is one of the most powerful (although short) I’ve ever seen. Shot subjectively, we see through a wounded soldier’s eyes as his companions run him past zooming bullets. In another scene, the camera matches Lili Taylor’s manic frenzy as she feverishly picks out dresses for her date. Juxtaposing these frantic images, Savoca frames the love scenes in a tender, intimate manner. The couple’s awkward fumbling play out in real time, allowing the audience to experience both the bliss and uncertainty that comes with a first time lover or new partner. Savoca refuses to indulge in the saccharine as she displays a realistic, almost voyeuristic unfolding of a romantic connection. Dogfight may be one of the most touching coming of age film’s I’ve ever seen. Dogfight embraces the giddy, childlike magic of falling in love while also remaining thoroughly human and genuine. The film immeasurably benefits from a female perspective on young teenagers falling in love and struggling to understand the gender boundaries society thrusts upon them. It all caps off in one of the most powerful film endings you’ll ever see.
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.