The strangest thing about Cockfighter is simply that it exists. A meditative character piece about a Southern drifter who makes his life training chickens for death matches with other chickens—and who, for most of the movie, refuses to speak—Cockfighter is daring even by the standards of offbeat ’70s American cinema, if only by dint of the storyline’s inherent ugliness. Did anyone involved in the picture believe that broad audiences would be able to sympathize with a protagonist who leads animals to slaughter for sport and profit? But that’s the ’70s for you, a wild time when brash young filmmakers somehow got funding to put the inner lives of society’s freaks onto the screen. And, indeed, the inner life of Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) is very much the subject of Cockfighter, which was adapted by Charles Willeford from his novel of the same name. Frank is a self-destructive iconoclast who takes such crazy pride in his skills that he bets all his assets on his feathered killers, then suffers in silence when things don’t go his way.
At the beginning of the picture, Frank is partway through a long, grueling odyssey to regain his pride. We learn, via flashbacks and narration, that after Frank lost a crucial match some time ago, he swore himself to silence unless he won the Cockfighter of the Year medal. In the grungy universe of this movie, Frank and his colleagues work an underground circuit of formal and informal matches, all of which are governed by an unyielding code of honor. So, just as we see Frank earn the respect of his peers by taking losses gracefully, we see minor characters excoriated for defying accepted methods. In one gruesome scene, for instance, a redneck trainer named Junior (Steve Railsback) gets disqualified for agitating a bird by inserting his (Junior’s) fingers into the bird’s anus. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie—sort of.
While the content of Cockfighter is frequently repulsive, the actual images are artful, except, of course, during the actual fighting scenes (many of which are filmed in horrific slow-motion). As directed by Monte Hellman, who earned a cult following in the ’70s for his heavily metaphorical character studies, Cockfighter is memorable but undisciplined. Some episodes in the story feel germane while others feel superfluous. Additionally, the portrayal of women in Frank’s life is confounding, since it’s hard to tell whether Frank’s a romantic or a son of a bitch. Further, the movie’s occasional leaps into redneck humor feel out of step with the overall lyrical vibe. Yet Oates is a fascinating presence, as always, his hangdog features perfectly suited for an outsider character with a savage streak, and the invaluable Harry Dean Stanton enlivens several scenes as Frank’s preening, scheming pal. Cockfighter is an odd beast for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the movie is both simplistic and complex—on one level, it’s a superficial exploitation flick, and on another, it’s a ballad of loneliness. With a lot of foul-tempered fowl.