Or is it due to the fact that he managed to see the brilliance of both Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton & had them share the screen in not one, but two of his films? I don't know exactly. The jury is still out.
But like his previous film "Two-Lane Blacktop", the viewer follows the exploits of a lone anti-hero, looking to make his own way in this mixed-up world. His drive to cockfight seems to be the product of some sort of compulsion. People in his life lecture him incessantly on the virtues of self-control, but those people, like most other things in his life, aren't much more than pawns to him. Movable when an opportunity to improve his game presents itself. It isn't the brightest study of the post-sixties American character, but it is sure fascinating.
I can understand why this film didn't go over so well with the general public. The animal cruelty on display is at times hard to bear. Yet, Hellman expertly cuts back and forth between the violence of the pit and the audience jeering & grinning at the carnage, looking to be both entertained and to make some extra cash. One guy is even seen ostentatiously choking back chicken during one fight.
Also, the faces of the dead birds are juxtaposed with the faces of those onlookers who seem to understand the depth of the depravity. Again, it is hard to watch, but Hellman uses the slaughter to great effect. When it is all over, it is hard to decide who to pity more: the birds or the people?
It is a sad portrait of a people who seem to find their meaning in such a brutish existence. While it may not be on the whole better than his other films, Hellman proves once again that he can capture the underbelly of the American dream like nobody else.
The film's most unusual element is that Oates barely says a word. His character Frank has taken a temporary vow of silence, due to wasting a bird after overconfidently bragging about its prowess. Oates rises to the acting challenge, mostly communicating with his eyes and hands as he deals with an unsupportive girlfriend (Patricia Pearcy), a ditzy road fling (doomed Laurie Bird, who also appeared in "Blacktop"), a financial backer (Richard B. Shull) and his chief rival (Harry Dean Stanton, wonderful in one of the first roles to establish his highly successful, second-phase persona). You also get the young Ed Begley, Jr. thoroughly embarrassing himself as a naive rube. Add a slew of Southern good ol' boys in smaller parts, and the cast becomes a virtual feast of character actors.
The animal violence (seemingly not faked) will turn off many viewers, but it's not as gruesome as one might guess. It's nearly bloodless, except in the climactic battle. The emphasis is more on the men who watch and participate in this "sport," and how they have a twisted gentleman's code of sorts despite the fighting's fundamental depravity. The matches do have rules and a referee. You'll resist rooting for Frank to win, but you'll be interested in what makes him tick.
This one is is about sport films. The narrative is set up like alot of sport films, and what's brilliant is that on one level plays out like a brilliantly directed one. Of course there's the whole bit about it not being consenting, competing humans, but chickens killing each other. It seems doubtful they faked it in anyway. I would bet money on the fact that they used and killing actual chickens. Therefore the whole exploitation and viciousness of sports is set up on full display. But here's the catch. These horrible, souless human beings, you actually care about and it made in such a way that you are almost cheering like the rednecks in the crowd.
Now let me saw that for the content I use the thrift store fur coat or John Waters defense.
But to continue on with it, it does throw the content in your face in an interesting way. And despite what you see, the acting, direction, writting, are all decent, and contain a great naturalistic feel to it. Thanks in no small part to Mr. Hellman.
If you eat chicken, see this film.
That's the hell of a good movie. Oates is simply perfect. As if Jean Rouch had left Africa and turned his attention to Louisiana. It puts the "vérité" in "cinéma vérité". It is a funky flix about the redest of rednecks.
It is violent (compared to a single cockfight the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan look like the adventures of Winnie the Poo). It is also wonderful of dignity.The decadence and the fragility and cheer joy of all the characters made me think of this expression invented to describe another film: Texistentialism, although the Cockfighter is set in Louisiana, you find that kind of happy goes kind of lucky Southern attitude.
Need to see it again soon.
This is the film Monte Hellman made after Two-Lane Blacktop. It explores another subculture in contemporary America - and again features characters who are removed from the mainstream, whose lives are lost, broken, disorganised - but who, within this subculture, find acceptance and love.
Warren Oates is Frank Mansfield, a game cock trainer who has taken a vow of silence only to be broken when he wins the coveted Cockfighter of the Year Award. This narrative arc places Cockfighter then squarely in the traditions of the American Sports Film - I was watching it and being constantly reminded of things like Rocky. It has the same structure.
Again Hellman casts some Two-Lane familiars - Warren Oates, taking the lead. Harry Dean Stanton giving again another of his fascinating performances, a man led by selfish instinct who has a predatory nature inside him - his brief scenes with Laurie Bird (another Two-Lane alumni) fizzle with domination games, and reveal a man asserting authority over another. The way he keeps putting his bird into fight, even when he's beaten, reveals the true measure of the man. Laurie Bird is, however, wasted in this film - she barely features.
I can imagine this was a tough sell in the 70s - and tougher now. Cockfighting is highly controversial - though it was once a recognised, and very popular, 'sport'. That into this frame you place a mute character as your central lead - well, let's just say, such a film would not be made in the 21st century. So it is a film very much of its day - and yet, because of its structure, it remains universal. It is another fascinating film from a director who has never entered the mainstream, but who is always worth watching. And, for all its controversies, Cockfighter remains a very interesting film.
I would argue that Frank's heart lies in his cock (both his rooster and in this penis). 1. Frank is a very physical man - this attribute is highlighted by the fact that he doesn't speak - so for his love interest Laurie Bird and for the audience Frank exist purely on an physical level (aside from some narration and a flashback) - but for Laurie he is purely physical. One could argue that love is more emotional than physical and that lust is more physical that emotional.
2. At the end of the film Laurie tells Frank that he is void of emotion and that his rooster has more heart than he does - heart is in his cock. As a response to this Frank rips the head off of his rooster and presents it to Laurie. Laurie accepts the roosters head then runs off to her car. Frank's manager Omar Baradinsky ask Frank about his lady troubles to which Frank (first time he has diagetically spoken) says "she loves me." Laurie accepting Frank's cock is overtly sexual - and to Frank this "sexual act" is love.
3. I would also argue that all voyeurism in this film lies within the cockfights - which is why I feel that is was essential for them to be real - thus making the act of watching these forbidden fights voyeuristic.