The difference between a small-scale dogfight and a real championship dogfight in 1957 is the audience. At the former, the all-male crowd is stereotypically country-bumpkin with faces and clothes covered in dirt. At the latter, rich folks are present, including women wearing their pearls and Sunday best. The surprise isn't that each has their own demographic, though; it is that either has any enthusiasts at all. Perhaps it is the illegality that draws them in, or maybe it's that gamblers will bet on just about anything.
While I was thinking about how dog fighting would be a tough-sell for a film like Walker Payne, which stars Jason Patric as a novice of the sport, I overheard some people in the audience discussing the contrary. They claimed the picture would be more marketable if the filmmakers cut out the dramatic story and just kept the dog fighting. If there are in fact people who enjoy watching pit bulls kill each other in a ring, then that edit would certainly make sense, since the film's narrative has very little going for it.
Patric plays the title character, a newly unemployed quarry worker who is denied access to his two daughters because he can't pay his child support payments. His ex-wife, Lou Ann (Drea de Matteo), therefore ends up the bad-cop parent, and when the little girls begin drawing pictures of their family with their mother left out, she makes a deal with Walker that he can buy the kids off her for five grand. In an attempt to acquire the money, however possible, he sells all his things at a tag sale and begs his old friend at the bank for a loan. Neither ends up fruitful for him, but at the bank he does meet Audrey (KaDee Strickland), the new woman in town.
Just when Walker thinks he hasn't a chance of getting the money, a mysterious out-of-towner named Syrus (Sam Shephard) shows up and takes notice of Walker's dog. At first Syrus tries unsuccessfully to buy the pit bull. Then, promising big money, he introduces Walker to the dogfights. With no other choice, Walker puts his loyal animal into the ring.
The worst scene in Walker Payne comes down the line, as the dog wins a few matches but gets really torn up. Audrey tells Walker that she can't love him if he's going to be so cruel to his dog, even if it is the only way he can get custody of his daughters. She then tells him about how her ex used to beat her because it was the only way he could deal with his awful job. Is Audrey comparing dogfights to domestic abuse? It seems that way, and the analogy comes off so random that it brings the film to a sudden, bewildering standstill. Somehow after that moment, not that it causes this exactly, the story gains more and more implausibility until it finally ends with utter perplexity.
The thing is, before the film even hits its questionable third act, it has too few redeemable qualities. Patric and Shepard are exceptional in their respective roles, but the characters they play are such thin, formulaic personalities, it never matters how well they are portrayed. The one thing in which the film excels at is depicting realistic-looking dog fights. The animals truly look like they're getting ripped apart. If any fans of the sport do end up seeing Walker Payne, they at least will be impressed and satisfied.