Hard liquor goes in at the mouth, but when we're lucky, it comes out in the writer's grip. Charles Bukowksi, the poet of the barstool, inhabited a no-vanity zone. His autobiographical novels tell it like it was, each a self-portrait of a man with a perpetual hangover and an understanding that it's futile to try to impress anyone in the real world. Better to ply the writer's trade, while only pinch-hitting in the game of life.
Writer-director Bent Hamer and co-writer Jim Stark build their film on the distinct personality of Bukowski and his alter ego, in this case named Henry Chinaski. Adapted from the novel Factotum (with bits from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, and The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship), Hamer's film confidently relies upon Matt Dillon to embody the sozzled scribe.
Turning in one of his best performances to date, Dillon proves more than up to the task previously tackled by Mickey Rourke (Barfly) and Ben Gazzara (Tales of Ordinary Madness). Chinaski is a man odder than his jobs ("factotum" means "a man who performs many jobs"), a hesitant, wary soul who walks and talks slowly, as if to make a sudden shift in direction more bearable when he inevitably offends. He blinks and "um"s through conversations, bemused by what's around him—invariably strange settings and characters redolent of a Gus Van Sant movie—but never truly surprised by an unpleasant turn of events. Naturally he takes layoffs in insouciant stride.
Chinaski narrates his story with ruthless, cutting candor. "Jan was a good fuck," he observes of the on-off girlfriend played by Lili Taylor. "She had a tight pussy, and she took it like a knife that was killing her." It's the sort of line that could only be penned by a writer who believes he's the only judge of his writing that matters. "My contest is only with myself," he writes, "To do it right." What doesn't make it onto the page is written on his hangdog face: an existence he sees as "grinding against death and losing."
Factotum comes with the consultancy and approval of Bukowkski's publisher—John Martin of Black Sparrow Press—and widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, but that's not to say Chinaski comes out smelling like anything but booze. He drinks like a fish, regularly throws jobs with unscheduled bar breaks, and backhands Jan, the character who almost qualifies the film as a pickled love story. It's a despairing existence, running on scarce momentum through hostile climes, but there's a nobility in his commitment to his craft and, on his good days, his mutual protectiveness with a drunken girlfriend (Marisa Tomei portrays a second lover).
Like Bukowski's writings, Hamer's film starts and ends midstream in Chinaski's 80-proof life. Most surprising, for a story this dark, is that it's poker-faced more often than po-faced, with Chinaski in on the consistently "dry" running joke. "Amazing how grimly we hold onto our misery," Chinaski notes, but somehow, by reporting from the front, Bukowski got the last laugh.