(Nancy Savoca, 1991)
Given that so many films are obsessed with relationships between men and women and detail meetings and deepening love, it seems odd that so few films really capture how it feels when two people truly connect with one another.
Perhaps this is because so many films prize snappy dialogue and a memorable meet-cute above any genuine sense of emotional engagement. Perhaps it’s just down to lazy writing and poor direction.
Somewhat against the odds, Dogfight gets it right. It’s based around a high-concept conceit; in 1963, the night before they are deployed overseas to what will ultimately be the Vietnam War, a unit of Marines organize a contest. This is the titular “dogfight”, wherein each marine brings the ugliest girl he can to a bar, treats her with politeness, and dances with her. The entrants are judged by a panel and the winner gets the kitty of several hundred dollars.
“Birdlace” Eddie (River Phoenix), struggling to find a worthy companion to take along, seizes upon Rose (Lili Taylor) after he spots her working in her Mother’s diner. Only their connection is instant and uncomfortably real, and Eddie tries to talk the unsuspecting girl out of accompanying him before it’s too late. Then, inevitably, she finds out about the contest, rages at Eddie, and storms out.
He follows her home, apologises and asks her to dinner to make it up to her. Over the remainder of the night, while his three best buddies indulge in typical shore leave behavior (brawls, tattoos, whores and booze), Eddie and Rose wander the streets of San Francisco and get to know one another better.
Their connection makes little sense; they are virtual opposites. Rose is sensitive and soulful, a lover of folk music and the peace corps, while Eddie is brash and cocky, though his inner vulnerability and need is obvious in Phoenix’s beautifully subtle performance. Every conversation between the two is a series of small revelations, yet their attraction is never in doubt, their chemistry a convincing, realistic portrayal of how these things just are. Their relationship comes at a pivotal moment for both and feels as important as it does true. Every nuance, every glance and pause seems expertly weighted and observed.
Taylor and Phoenix are both exceptional here. Taylor makes Rose a vivid, complex girl. Surprised by Eddie’s attention, she thrives on it, and the area in which they are best-suited is in their matching fighting spirit; the ferocity of her rebuke for his behavior is impressive, and may finally sway him to ask her out to dinner. Her exhibition of how ridiculous Eddie’s swearing is while ordering dinner in an expensive restaurant is similarly brilliant. Taylor shows us how Rose grows in confidence and belief as the night wears on, and how she sees the good in Eddie. His machismo is part act, and she – and we, thanks to Phoenix’s sensitive work – can see this. Phoenix was every inch a future movie star; beautiful, charismatic and also incredibly talented, and this film may well be the best exhibition of his abilities.
Savoca’s direction never loses sight of their great work or of the chemistry between them, but it is also subtly suggestive of period without ever becoming kitschy (until the last act Vietnam-Haight Ashbury scenes). The characters remain human and warmly observed throughout, and the ending is moving without being cloying. That ending contextualizes all that has gone before, moving the action on several years to Eddie’s return from Vietnam. It suggests that though what happened to these little people on that one night might not have meant much when put against political upheaval, assassination and war; it meant an awful lot to them, and still does. It is a moving testament to the power of love and of love stories, and it makes Dogfight even a little transcendent. It seems amazing that a film this good could be so little-known.