For most men, it is often impossible to break away from the traditions and norms enforced by toxic masculinity. It is far easier to call out misogynistic behavior than to actually get to the roots of the problem, which is why even the phrase toxic masculinity is often a buzzword and no more than a buzzword. Traditionally, it takes the love of a good woman to save a man from himself, which is itself a troublesome narrative that engenders damaging preconceptions and expectations towards women. On the surface, Dogfight is guilty of these tired tropes, but there is so much more to this film that actually ends up subverting them in a film about a tender relationship in which the characters emerge better, if only slightly so.
Set in 1963 the night before Kennedy’s assassination, Dogfight focuses on a young Marine named Birdlace (River Phoenix) and his attempts to win a “dogfight,” a competition in which Marines attempt to bring the most unattractive woman they can find to a party where they will be judged for their unattractiveness. Struggling to find a date who will accompany him, Birdlace settles for Rose (Lili Taylor), a waitress at a cafe and an aspiring musician who is more shy and awkward than anything else. After the judging competition, Rose finds out why Birdlace has invited her to the party and rightly calls him out and furiously storms out. Feeling apologetic, Birdlace attempts to make it up to her and most of the film takes place over one night as Birdlace and Rose get to know each other and see past each others’ facades.
Despite its period setting, Dogfight is a modest, intimate film that lives and dies by its performances. River Phoenix was definitely one of the most dynamic, interesting actors working in his time. He could have gone the superstar route as a cameo as young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade suggests, but he gravitated more towards being an indie darling with roles in this film and My Own Private Idaho. He was especially good at playing a troubled young man with a soft, tender heart at his core, which he did to great effect in Idaho as well as in Dogfight. He can talk with the swagger befitting the overly masculine Marines that are his friends, yet his sincerity in his intimate moments with Lili Taylor’s character is particularly affecting.
On the other hand, Lili Taylor plays modest conviction with a real grace and authenticity. Even though she is deliberately dressed frumpy for dramatic effect, she sells her performance with her soft voice and the weight in her shoulders. This is especially striking if you consider her performance the year before in Bright Angel, where she plays a truly lethal femme fatale who could make men fall for her with the promise of sex. Taylor is one of those actors who disappears into her roles, even ones without obvious physical or behavioral affectations. Consider her small yet crucial role in Say Anything, where her lovelorn balladeer provides a funny yet melancholy perspective on love and relationships. She plays her character so sincerely that it’s almost comical, yet she is able to find just the right note so that she doesn’t come off as a caricature.
These two performances make Dogfight a lovingly drawn sketch of subtle beauty. As Birdlace attempts to make up for his atrocious behavior, Mary gently pulls and pokes at his gruff facade. She is also not as meek as some might make her out to be. For example, she calls him out on his foul language not because she is offended but because she knows that it is a front. She then proceeds to curse while ordering from the menu of the fancy restaurant that they have finagled their way into to show how childish his behavior is. It may come off as motherly but just the scene before she had played along with his ruse to buy a dinner jacket to get past the host at the snobby restaurant they are in. As for Birdlace, it is his genuine interest in Mary that ultimately redeems his character. When he asks her to play him some of her music, his reaction is sincere and touching, and we get a glimpse of Birdlace becoming a much better man in the future possibly.
These little interactions are good enough to sustain this film. In fact, films such as the Before trilogy directed by Richard Linklater focused on just such moments exclusively, which resulted in emotionally rich and dynamic works. Dogfight cuts occasionally to Birdlace’s friends (the four ‘B’s) and their hijinks, which include getting matching tattoos and getting oral sex from a prostitute. Their exploits interrupt the spell of the film, but they are necessary because Dogfight isn’t simply about an extended date.
Dogfight is also very aware of the mortality of the relationship it captures. It is set in a San Francisco that looks more like small-town America than the haven of counterculture it would quickly become by the mid-60’s. Birdlace mentions that he is being shipped off tomorrow to Vietnam and how he is confident that he wouldn’t be in combat and that they were only there as “advisers.” The narrative is also driven by the pop music that plays over the soundtrack, which starts with typical 50’s-style American rock and progresses to Mary’s beloved folk music. Though both forms of music existed concurrently, it is as if the culture surrounding this couple is preparing for the shift that they will find themselves in the middle of.
Even though Dogfight shows a truly lovely time between these two young people, it is also realistic about the nature of such short relationships. When Birdlace chooses to lie about his tryst with Mary and instead tells a story about sleeping with a superior’s wife, he is choosing to go back to his old ways instead of looking forward and past his insecurity. As a result, when he returns from Vietnam, where his buddies have most likely all been killed, San Francisco is in full-blown hippie mode and he struggles to find any semblance of the city from that magic night. The gentle embrace that he has in the end is the film’s subtle way of showing how wrong he was to forsake someone who really sought to understand him, and that he will always be vastly unprepared for what the world throws at him if he keeps running from vulnerability.
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