I never thought I would sit through a movie about cockfighting. But after seeing Dillinger and Two-Lane Blacktop last year, I now count Warren Oates among my favorite actors. And, as with Two-Lane Blacktop, I had the chance to see one of his films on the big screen, at a cinema here in Tokyo that has been re-releasing all of Monte Helman’s films.
Cockfighter is indeed about illegal cockfighting, and the men that pit roosters against each other to the death in barns, riversides, hotel rooms and the governor’s mansion. Even before the film was released, is garnered controversy, with activists petitioning then governor Jimmy Carter to stop the filming. The finished film was banned in the UK, where it still can’t be shown. Steps were reportedly taken to prevent the animals from hurting each other too much, and none of them actually died in the filming. But today, the bloody fight scenes are difficult to watch, especially one composed of slow-motion close-ups.
Every scene either shows a brutal cockfight or the preparation for the next one. But the film is about more than the outlaw sport. Oates plays a man obsessed. He refuses to speak a word, although he does talk in his sleep. He was once certain that he would get the medal for cockfighter of the year, which comes directly from the governor, despite the sport being illegal. He consented to a warm-up match in a hotel room and lost his prize rooster and his only chance for the medal. His opponent, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells him “you got two problems, Mansfield, you drink too much and you talk to much.” And just like that the decides not to utter another word until he does get that medal. Although Oates does provide voice-over narration, he has to act the entire film without speaking. The challenge creates a perfect role for him, and he crooked grin and soulful eyes go a long way.
Stanton is as good as always here, and there is an appearance by a very young Ed Begley Jr., and character actor Richard B. Shull is enjoyable as the partner who takes care of the business side of the bets. But the film really belongs to Oates. In one scene, his character is forced to go back to his hometown after losing his car and trailer on a bad bet. Before long an old girlfriend comes to pay a visit. They stand on the front porch. She talks, pleading with him to finally make a commitment. He only gives her pained squints. When her mother, waiting in the car, gives an impatient honk, Oates explodes in a ball of energy, dancing across the lawn, jumping onto the roof of her car and pounding on the windows by way of a greeting. This one little not only captures the title character of this film, but also Warren Oates’ range as an actor.