Blu-ray Review: Nancy Savoca’s Bittersweet Dogfight on the Criterion Collection

Dogfight is pitched on the precipice of a massive sea change in American life.

Dogfight Set in San Francisco on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Dogfight is pitched on the precipice of a massive sea change in American life. The post-war boom of the 1950s is waning, and the civil rights era and the Vietnam War are right around the corner. The film’s protagonists exist, then, in a kind of liminal space, uncomfortable in their own skin and riddled with anxieties and uncertainties about their immediate futures.

Released in 1991, when nostalgia for the ’60s was near its peak, Nancy Savoca’s film takes a distinctly feminine perspective on the era, challenging the unbridled machismo and ritualistic behaviors that were often celebrated, or at least unexamined, in the male-directed films of the time. For the opening 20 minutes, we bear witness to an especially cruel competition in which Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix), an 18-year-old Marine, and several of his jarhead buddies, all on a 24-hour leave before shipping out to Okinawa, scour the city to find the ugliest date to bring to a party.

Dogfight initially plays up the male bonding that’s central to this ritual, but upon discovering Eddie used her, folk music-loving wallflower Rose (Lili Taylor) slaps him in the face and tells him off before storming out of the bar where the titular dogfight is being held. Still, after Eddie apologizes and takes her out to a nice dinner, a connection gradually blossoms between the two, which the filmmakers depict with great tenderness and acuity, casting an empathetic eye on the hotheaded Eddie as Rose unearths the more compassionate traits that had been lying dormant beneath the macho conformity demanded of him by the war machine.

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That isn’t to say that Dogfight is merely a tale of the sweet, nave teenage girl taming the rough-edged, foul-mouthed boy. The film, based on screenwriter Bob Comfort’s own experiences as a Marine, shows how both Rose and Eddie are confined by the social demands and conventions of the time and how they help, even for just one night, to free one another from those restrictions. While Eddie is more fragile and sensitive than he initially appears, Rose is far stronger and more confident than her mostly quiet, reserved presence would have you believe. And while the filmmakers show Rose as a victim of Eddie’s callousness, they also highlights how Rose standing up for herself serves as the catalyst for two lonely hearts to truly connect with one another.

Dogfight is, on its surface, a traditional opposites-attract love story. But it’s in its razor-sharp social consciousness and meticulous, sensitive examination of how a very brief relationship helps Rose and Eddie open up to one another, and reveal things to themselves, that Savoca’s indie darling distinguishes itself from other similar films of its era.

Image/Sound

Transferred from a new 2K digital restoration, the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray presentation of Dogfight boasts strong contrast, even grain distribution, and a very naturalistic range of colors, and while the image is slightly on the soft side, detail is strong, helping to highlight all the little period-specific touches peppered throughout Nancy Savoca’s film. The 2.0 surround audio is plenty robust in the more raucous scenes in bars, clubs, and arcades, and is clean and crisp in its presentation of both the dialogue and the film’s folk-dominated soundtrack.

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Extras

On an audio commentary recorded in 2003, Savoca and her producer husband, Richard Guay, have a fruitful discussion, breaking down the characters’ psychologies and delving into the intricacies of the script and the changes made to it prior filming. In a new interview conducted by director Mary Harron, Savoca and Lili Taylor discuss the ways in which the character of Rose was fleshed out and how script revisions made the film more of a two-hander. There’s also an informative Zoom discussion between six members of the film’s crew, who touch on everything from how the production design reflected both the era and the characters to how they shot Seattle to look like San Francisco. Lastly, a foldout booklet includes an essay by Christina Newland about the film’s nuanced portrait of American masculinity and youth culture.

Overall

Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight is a stellar, singular example of 1960s nostalgia filtered through an early-’90s American independent filmmaking mindset.

Score: 
 Cast: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield, Holly Near, E.G. Daily, Sue Morales, Christina Mastin, Christopher Shaw, John Lacy, Brendan Fraser  Director: Nancy Savoca  Screenwriter: Bob Comfort  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 93 min  Rating: R  Year: 1991  Release Date: April 30, 2024  Buy: Video

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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