Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) learned to fly, but his heart was never really in it, so what took over his life as a way of earning money was cockfighting. Not that he always did well out of it: take recently when he agreed a contest with his prize bird against the one belonging to old acquaintance Jack Burke (Harry Dean Stanton). Frank was foolish enough to bet his caravan and car, along with his casual girlfriend Dody (Laurie Bird), so confident was he that he was going to win, even going to the point of subterfuge to make his bird look as if it had a broken beak. He lost.
The first thing you cannot get away from in Cockfighter is that the skirmishes between the cockrels were authentic and although they were staged, complete with rubber spurs, a few birds were not only injured but killed in the process of making this. That would be enough to turn most people off from watching it, but what makes it more problematic is that this may have been produced by exploitation expert Roger Corman for his New World company, but it is actually more of an art film, complete with gritty atmosphere jostling for position with an undeniably lyrical appearance. So how do you approach it?
If indeed you approach it at all? If you can stomach the fighting sequences, and there are quite a few, then you'll be witnessing one of the great Warren Oates' most vivid characterisations, made all the more idiosyncratic by the fact that Frank has taken up a vow of silence, only to be broken when he wins what he considers a prestigious medal awarded to the finest cockfighter of the year. We do hear the occasional bit of voiceover narration from Frank by way of explaining himself, and there's one flashback scene where we hear him speak, but for the most part Oates is performing with gestures and facial expressions.
And very strange he is too, almost playful at times, especially when accompanied by his old girlfriend Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy) who is trying to coax him onto settling down with her. The real sadness in Frank's life is that he cannot see that his pursuit of such a disreputable "sport" is harming his chances at a normal life with her, as she is disgusted by the way he makes his money. So the film by no means endorses what Frank and his co-fighters do and indeed makes it look very seedy and ugly, though there are many who would say it doesn't take much skill to do that.
Therefore it would have been a better bet to make this a story about bare knuckle boxing or ten pin bowling of they had wanted to find a more appreciative audience, and there's a lot that is perversely singleminded about this adaptation of Charles Willeford's novel, as if director Monte Hellman and company are jamming their hands over their ears and saying "Lalala! Can't hear you!" to any inevitable complaints about the actual animal violence here. The only characters who seem upset when a bird dies are Ed Begley Jr's hick whose cockrel is killed by Frank's, and of course Mary Elizabeth who makes it clear that he has lost his soul by degrading himself through getting involved in this bloodshed to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that this is very well made probably won't be enough for most people, however. Music by Michael Franks.
"Existential" is a word often used to describe the films of this American director, who after working for Roger Corman on Beast from Haunted Cave, Back Door to Hell and The Terror directed two cult westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. In the 1970s he continued his cult acclaim with Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37, but come the 80s the directing work dried up, with only Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 to his name. He also worked behind the scenes on The Wild Angels, Robocop and Reservoir Dogs, among others.