Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) and his three Marine buddies arrive in San Francisco 1963 for their last night before shipping out to Vietnam. They take part in a “dogfight,” a wager in which the one who finds the most unattractive date wins. Eddie finds Rose (Lili Taylor), a shy folk song loving pacifist. Eddie takes Rose to the party, but starts to feel guilt for bringing her and tries to talk her out of going. Rose finds out the nature of the party and storms out, but not before she tells off Eddie and his buddies. Eddie leaves his friends to apologize and take Rose out. They spend the evening getting to know each other before Eddie has to leave for Vietnam.
It has been fifteen years since River Phoenix died on October 31, 1993. One can only wonder what kind of career he could have had if his inner demons hadn’t taken control of his life. But he will live on through his films, like many before him that died so young and left an indelible mark (James Dean and recently Heath Ledger). Phoenix was a child actor who was making a successful transition to an Oscar nominated supporting actor for Running on Empty.
He was expected to be one of the best actors of his generation. He was different than the Corey’s (Feldman and Haim) and other actor’s of the 80’s. Where they seemed artificial, Phoenix seemed real. Phoenix had true depth that the audience could feel and sympathize with. But unfortunately what ever problems he had intruded into his art. Phoenix’s last two films were examples of his acting ability being sapped by some unseen force. In Dogfight, Phoenix gives one of his best performances, but he is not alone.
The film Dogfight addresses the pain we humans infflict on each other while trying to mask our own insecurities. The title refers to a cruel wager made by Vietnam-bound Marines in 1963 San Francisco. River Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, a young Marine involved in the game, who chooses a plain girl to be his unwitting partner in his attempt to bring the ugliest date to the party.
Lili Taylor portrays Rose, the plain girl who loves folk music and is no one’s fool. Taylor is powerful and vulnerable in her characterization, proving once again how talented an actor she is. Once she discovers the reason for the party, the shy Rose becomes enraged by the callous attitudes of those involved. She punches Birdlace and storms out. Whereas Eddie and his cohorts scream macho marine encouragements to build their fragile self-esteem, Rose stands alone, yet she is stronger than they are. Rose may have insecurities, but she defends herself and refuses to senselessly hurt other people for her own amusement.
A guilt laden Birdlace goes to Rose’s house to apologize and asks to take her to dinner. As the evening progresses they begin to develop a connection. Birdlace is surprised to discover that he enjoys Rose’s company and doesn’t meet up with his friends as he promised. Birdlace’s buddies and their activities are intercut showing what his evening was supposed to be if he had joined them.
Phoenix delivers an excellent performance. Even though Eddie is a cynic, he is searching for happiness and acceptance. He was once a dreamer, proven by his bluebird of happiness tattoo. He doubts its power, forgetting that only he can construct his own happiness. Phoenix and Taylor give brilliant layered performances throughout the film. They enact the most real and beautiful scene of the first awkward kiss and showing of affection in film. The film was directed by Nancy Savoca who deserves credit for these exceptional performances of not only the leads, but all of the supporting players. Savoca is also the director and screenwriter of True Love (1989) and Household Saints (1993). Savoca always strikes the right chords of human behavior throughout her films, whether the behavior is positive or negative. We recognize many traits that her characters possess.
Dogfight is a gentle film whose subtle message attacks our everyday apathy. Although it’s set in 1963, the theme is timeless. The period music is an aptly used mixture of folk music and pop standards: the juxtaposition of substance and fluff is brilliant. The film has just the right nostalgic flavor. Phoenix and Taylor’s closing scene is powerful without uttering a word. This is a film that I watch to rediscover what an incredible actor Phoenix was and that Lili Taylor still is. I can’t help be feel sad for the loss of River Phoenix, but this beautiful film will live on.