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.
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.
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.
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.
The film has a remarkable 100% on movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, sharing that honor with few others (The Godfather and Toy Story 2 are the most famous examples). The reviews gush:
- "This is a blood and guts art film with unforgettable intensity and stark scenes that few films have managed to capture with such fervor."
- "A great film with a masterful silent performance by Warren Oates."
Unfortunately, the film doesn't live up to the high expectations set by the five total reviews on RT. It's directed by Monte Hellman, who apparently made a name for himself with 1971's Two-Lane Blacktop, a film that has been included in the prestigious Criterion Collection (The 400 Blows and Armageddon are the most famous examples). Perhaps it is because of the good will generated by this earlier film that critics are willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. But from the opening credits, which announce that the film was produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman, it is clear that the movie's goal is not to provide any great social or moral layers to the story: instead, it's about watching some cocks fighting.
Well, I take that back. The story is about a man named Frank, a champion cockfighter who doesn't really seem to have any talents in the sport - he's more of a compulsive gambler than anything. After losing a weird slow-motion cockfight in a sleazy motel room and being yelled at for talking too much, he vows never to talk again until he has won the Cocksman's medal, the greatest prize a cockfighting man can hope to secure. His commitment to silence involves slapping his knee with a cowboy hat to denote laughter, and holding up his fingers to symbolize 'five-times-four' in order to declare the price of a chicken $100. The few reviews of Cockfighter tend to praise Warren Oates' silent performance, but I fail to see any great accomplishment in it. In fact, the few times that he does speak in the film are probably a lot better acted than the hokey silent treatment. Plus, the movie cheats by having Frank provide an awful narration for the majority of the film.
Then there is the world of cockfighting itself, which is not shown with any glamor. The sport is populated by rednecks and shysters, dirty people who crowd around little patches of dirt to watch birds claw at each other. This is seen by many as a satire of the sports genre which was gaining popularity at the time of the film's release, but that reading is hard to find compelling. I guess one could say that the seriousness with which the movie takes its sport is commendable - before there is a single fight, there is the long process of grooming and training your chicken. The movie doesn't laugh once at the over-abundance of the word "cock", despite the fact that its viewers certainly will. But this same seriousness is a hindrance for a movie that offers little to keep viewers interested. The previously mentioned slow-mo cockfight is the highlight of the film, whereas most of the other fights are real-time and uneventful. The movie may have really benefited from a sense of humor: there is literally a character in the movie whose single role is to be ejected from a cockfight for sticking his finger in a cock's ass. Imagine putting that on your resume.
So the movie is boring. There are a few actors included who went on to become bigger stars (Harry Dean Stanton and Ed Begley, Jr., are the most famous examples) and, again, those positive reviews go out of their way to dole out praise for their performances. Neither make much of a mark, though; they don't elevate the movie except for the fact that now you can go, "Hey! It's that guy! I've seen him in other stuff!" The characters are otherwise flat, with unclear or stupid motivations. There's not a single person in the film to get behind. We're supposed to see Frank as a hero, I suppose, but he is as lifeless as the rest of the cast. Another suggestion: maybe this could have been corrected by giving some sense of Frank's growth as a cockfighter and as a man. As it stands, he just keeps doing the same thing over and over and then the movie ends.
Did I miss something here? Is Cockfighter a devastating social satire, a black comedy classic that ought to be held up as an example for its understated brilliance? All I saw was a lame movie that went nowhere. It's not so much offensively bad - aside from its animal brutality and broad racial stereotyping - it's more just heartless. It may treat the sport of cockfighting with seriousness, but it fails to treat the man at the center of the story with that same seriousness. I can't see how this film can deliver on any level - whether taken as camp or as an art film.