1. It’s Actually About Cockfighting. When I first saw the title of this movie, I wondered if it was really even about a Cockfighter. We live in such strange times that, while films about sexually sadistic serial killers have become boring, the idea of a film about a guy who fights roosters seems impossibly taboo. So I worried that this might be bad love story that producer, Roger Corman, has provocatively titled based on 5 minutes of wedged in stock footage. But this movie is centered around cockfighting, just as surely as California Split is centered around gambling and The 300 is centered around homosexual fascism. Our protagonist Frank (well played by Warren “Adam” Oates) travels the circuit in search of relative status and wealth, and the “cockfight of the year” medallion. In fact, he has taken a vow of silence until he wins the coveted medallion and the bulk of the film simply follows that quest. You know what word is used at least 300 times in this movie? ‘Cock!’
2. The Seedy South. The South really is a glorious institution if you strip away their religion and the moral putrefaction that comes with it and thus expose the magnificent, half-assed, low-lives that have always been at it’s core. In “Cockfighter,” living in a trailer is part of touring the back roads free of obligation, not merely finding the cheapest place to get fat. If you’ve read the old stories of Southern gamblers like TJ Cloutier, you’ll recognize the calm disappointment expressed when a pool of gamblers are robbed at shotgun point, as opposed the pants-shitting panic you would experience in the same situation. You see the same mellowness from an onlooker when Jack shoves the head of a boy who attacked him into a water trough. The gentlemen casually removes his pipe to observe, “you best not hold him under there too long, Mr. Mansfield, he’s like to get drowned.”
There’s something appealing and perhaps even romantic about cobbling together a lifestyle and even a bit of cash while moving through the economic and cultural tundra of the deep South. You travel about, cleaning up at the event of the year in a particular locality: a relief to those seeking fresh air from the suffocating snobbery of Southern wrestling circuit. A score of decrepit illiterates forms a circle to bet on fighting animals. Though easily mistaken for a meeting of the Mississippi state senate, this is where you fleece hapless yokels of their moonshine money. The low life has it’s allure, and this is as low as it gets. The definitive moment on this front comes when legal concerns lead to one tournament being held in a hotel suite. A final objection is addressed when it is proclaimed that “dead cocks will be stacked in the bathtub.”
3. Cock Talk. While a film called “Cockfighter” is bound to be replete with double entendre, these screenwriters have come up with a script consisting almost entirely of double entendre. Our protagonist has taken a vow of silence, but partners up with another “cocksman” who says before the big match, “no matter how we come out tomorrow, I’ll always be grateful to you for taking me this far.” And that’s one of about five sentences without the word ‘cock.’ Frank’s sporadically grandiloquent partner raises a toast to “the mystic realm of the great cock! A monument!”
4. High Fashion. You know how if you corner a chick with a couple of brain cells about liking Sex In The City, she’ll eventually claim she really just loves the clothes? Should you ever find yourself in the uncouth company of a person incapable of appreciating fighting roosters, cock talk, hillbilly degeneracy and wonton misogyny you can always point to the splendiferous wardrobe used in this film. In the best of times, the culture warp that is the American South draws in an inferior and dated version of what is hot on the streets of civilization. So the bumpkin’s take on fashion in the 1970’s is something to behold. I mean, we all own a chocolate colored suit or two, but who has had the vision to adorn it with a gold and purple, leopard skin?
5. Educational Value. Just as Rounders helped lay the groundwork for the Texas hold ‘em explosion by laying out the basic rules and appeal of the game, Cockfighter seems to provide a fairly accurate and interesting depiction of the cockfighting game. The minimal rules and the flow of the action are sketched out in some earlier matches so that we can watch the critical battles with understanding. The cockfights are well filmed and dramatic, especially when you learn that many of the fights were real. Of course, we as a society have decided that, while it is fine to inflict months of cramped suffering for the momentary satisfaction of a McNugget, it is monstrous to allow a few minutes of cock suffering for a film that could potentially bring joy for decades. As cockfighting is now illegal in every state, unless you are Roy Jones Jr, this film is one of the few ways you might gain exposure to a pastime enjoyed by the likes of Jefferson and Washington.
6. Redneck Grade Misogyny. We like to think that social mores are continually being rolled back, but this film would never be permitted today. Apart from the animal cruelty issues, the nonjudgmental depiction of the treatment of women as livestock would render the script DOA. Naturally, Frank loses the film’s opening fight, on which he has bet his truck and trailer, to his main rival, Jack (Harry Dean Stanton, also very good). Frustrated by the loss, Frank angrily throws his unwashed laundry at his lazy woman, before meeting back up with Jack. Frank pays his debt and, almost as an afterthought, decides to throw in the woman with his other possessions and make a clean break of it. To be clear, he has not done anything so noble as bet and lose his woman on a cockfight. Rather, on a whim, he has decided to simply include the woman for free, along with the stuff he’s actually obligated to hand over, largely because she hasn‘t done the laundry.
We see her twice more. First, after a rematch between Frank and Jack she runs into the cockring after Frank wins and attempts to attack him for having given her away. Her new husband scoops her onto his shoulder and the two men dance about and taunt her as she flails hysterically and the crowd laughs and cheers. We see her a final time when she is sent over to Frank to deliver the line, “Jack says I have to apologize to you.” Frank magnanimously accepts the apology, but has set his sites on an old flame who he woos by pulling the head off a dead roster and handing it to her.