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Cockfighter

Posted by martinteller on September 8, 2012

Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) is one of the most respected “handlers” on the cockfighting circuit.  He loses an impromptu match against his rival Burke (Harry Dean Stanton) and thus puts himself out of the running for the coveted “Cockfighter of the Year” award.  He rightfully blames the incident on his big mouth and vows not to say a word until he’s won the prize.  Not to his family, his partner, or even his girl.

As in the earlier Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman takes a long look at people competing at the fringes of society, misfit drifters trying to prove themselves — and make a buck — in an edgy niche.  Frank and his associates are participating in a cowardly, brutal, sadistic “sport” where their only concerns are the odds and the payoff.  Frank gets by quite well without his voice because he has little to say that doesn’t involve negotiating the terms of a fight.  He’s an unusual subject for a character study as he seems to lack much character.  And yet, Oates turns in an excellent facial and physical performance that conveys Frank’s thoughts and manages to imbue him with a shred (just a shred, mind you) of something resembling humanity.

The fights are pretty visceral and the film doesn’t flinch.  I was prepared to be disturbed and offended, but hell, I had chicken strips for dinner last night.  I couldn’t work up enough hypocrisy to get too worked up by it.  Almendros also films them with a hypnotic beauty, abstract flurries of beaks and feathers and blood.

On the whole I prefer Two-Lane Blacktop, but as a single performance, this is the best I’ve seen from Oates.  Although you occasionally get to hear him in voiceover or flashback, for the most part he plays it silent, and does so very effectively.  His gestures communicate to the other characters, and his eyes communicate to the audience.  I also really enjoyed Richard Shull as Frank’s partner, a fun and glib character who provides some of the film’s lighter moments.  As I’ve said before, Stanton doesn’t do much for me but he’s okay here.

This was a tricky movie for me.  For a large part of it I had kind of a blasé “so what?” attitude about it, and then it dawned on me that I was actually enjoying it.  It gradually grew on me to the point where I was really invested in seeing what this offbeat — and largely unsympathetic — character would get into.  Rating: Very Good (81)

IMDb
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2 Responses to “Cockfighter”

  1. JamDenTel said

    “I was prepared to be disturbed and offended, but hell, I had chicken strips for dinner last night.”

    I love that line.

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