Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER is a laid-back, drawling piece of outsider cinema that stays in the mind long after it's over. In its tone of southern-fried eccentricity and implicit violence, it has a spiritual connection to John Huston's vastly underrated adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD. (Perhaps not incidentally, Hellman's film climaxes in Milledgeville, GA, the hometown of O'Connor and thus the Mecca of Southern Grotesque.) It tells the story of Frank Mansfield, a down on his luck cockfighter who has sworn a vow of silence until he wins the title of Cockfighter of the Year. It's impossible to describe the plot beyond this point without imposing more of a structure on the film than it really seems to want. As Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote, "Hellman manages to suggest the point that watching a movie called COCKFIGHTER is as ridiculous as watching a cockfight." True, but Frank Mansfield takes cockfighting as seriously as a religious calling, and the film doesn't seem to question his belief.
The film was produced as a Roger Corman cheapie and stars the great wild shaman of 70s grindhouse/art cinema, Warren Oates. It's not an action film--though it was sold as such (even re-titled BORN TO KILL and given a wholly misleading poster that presented Oates as an ax-wielding psychopath). One could be tempted to call it in a film noir, though I'm not sure that, ultimately, the designation will fit. There's too much good ol' boy humor, too much of a movement, however sputtering, toward redemption. Again, I go back to WISE BLOOD. Like that film, COCKFIGHTER takes place in a sealed world. Betting on cockfights seems to be the only economy that exists in this barren, burned out vision of the American south (the sun peels back the edges of certain shots). It also seems to be the only mode of social interaction. As Frank Mansfield pursues his goal with dogged purpose (like one of O'Connor's Jesus-obsessed hillbillies--but for, you know, fightin' roosters) we never peek outside of his world of trailers and trucks and chicken coops.
Though the screenwriter and novelist Charles Willeford (who also appears in the film) claimed he based the script on The Odyssey, it essentially plays as a kind of gritty redneck sports flick. The existential kicker here, of course, is that the damn birds do all the fighting. Frank and his main nemesis Jack (the reliably superb Harry Dean Stanton) are just a couple of broken men who throw down money in the hopes that luck will fall their way. Maybe it is a little noirish after all.
Read my essay on Wise Blood here.