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Two potential reference points spring to mind upon hearing of Heath Cozens’s Doglegs: Will a doc about a Japanese wrestling league of disabled fighters echo the empowerment-minded, defiant Murderball, or will it make viewers feel like spectators at a dwarf-tossing sideshow? The frustrating but perhaps necessary answer is somewhere in between for this pic, which raises plenty of unanswered questions but refuses to force its subjects into tidy boxes. Always involving and sometimes deeply moving, the film is likely to agitate some viewers but will find more admirers than detractors on the fest circuit.
Started two decades ago by “a collection of misfits,” the series of fights was meant in part to help patients take ownership of their own afflictions. But it seems always to have incorporated an element of cathartic self-debasement. Instead of pairing opponents whose abilities are similar, it pits grossly unequal fighters against each other, most famously the cerebral palsy patient Shintaro and his able-bodied caregiver Kitajima. The latter not only doesn’t pull his punches in the ring, he humiliates Shintaro verbally, calling him a loser and mocking his weaknesses.
The film doesn’t question this disturbing relationship directly, but we see an interview in which Shintaro admits that “it’s like S&M play,” in which both abuser and abused get something from the ritual. Something even stranger appears to be happening when another cerebral palsy patient — a cross-dressing alcoholic — engages in regular public bouts with his wife, who is not only able-bodied but twice his size.
In that fighter’s case, it’s hard to believe we’re watching any form of self-empowerment at all. In fact, as we see him get drunk on sake at home with the help of family and caregivers, we can only conclude we’re watching a slow-motion suicide. “I have to support him in that,” one acquaintance says of the choices the drunken man is making.
Viewers may well disagree with that sentiment, but the messy jumble here makes it nearly impossible to stand in judgment. “You always hurt the one you love” takes on new meaning, with loved ones inflicting one kind of pain in part because they can’t make other kinds of suffering go away.
Kirby Dick’s Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist addressed this kind of relationship with more clarity, and to a much more effective end. But Sick had a single pair of lovers to contend with, where Doglegs involves an entire community of self-selected fighters. The scene is inherently muddy. And Cozens, perhaps to his credit, doesn’t try to clean any of it up.
Director-Producer-Director of photography-Editor: Heath Cozens
Music: Sean Crownover
No rating, 88 minutes
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