Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is an alcoholic shuffling through job after job while trying to land a writing gig for his short stories. He lives in a world of misery, destitution, and depression, but the people (including Lili Taylor, Fisher Stevens, and Marisa Tomei) that he encounters on a daily basis shape his life and writing, and slowly push Henry to a small sense of artistic accomplishment.
Bent Hamer's "Factotum" is a study of minimalist mood, not some extravagant tale of despair to get lost in. Adapted from the lurid stories of Charles Bukowski (Chinaski was his fictional alter-ego), the picture is far from a gentle portrayal of the writing process, but more a pit-stained, VD-infested, vomit-splattered look at the bottom of the garbage can called life. If the viewer can adjust to the pitch-black temperament of the story, there's some truly appealing filmmaking to witness.
There's no real plot to "Factotum," and the picture lacks proper characterizations, motivations, and general structure. Hamer (the charming Norwegian film "Kitchen Stories") uses the episodic nature of Bukowski's writing to arrange a sickly journey of a man who wants to express himself, but can't resist his celebratory urge for failure. Hamer doesn't pull many punches envisioning Chinaski's dreary existence, sticking like glue to all the icky personal defects that define the character. For instance, one scene consists entirely of Chinaski and his lover Jan (Taylor) in grimy apartment taking turns throwing up in a nearby toilet while the morning sun breaks in the fresh new day. Trust me, that's a highlight in the day of Henry Chinaski.
It's not quite the stuff that dreams are made of, but Hamer finds a terrific equilibrium to the misery, takes great care exploiting Bukowski's darkly comedic leanings (the film is, against all odds, genuinely funny) and drowning the entire film in a punch-drunk fog to bring the viewer slowly into Chinaski's orbit. There's an odd, burpy rhythm to this miscalculated life as he stumbles around looking for employment, taking anything (pickle factory, bike shop, janitor) that will pay for a bottle, and that directorial patience helps the film from buckling under the weight of all this misery.
In playing Chinaski, Matt Dillon transforms himself entirely, using the contradiction of the character's sleepy, slushy exterior with his sharp, literate mind to challenge the audience. There's nothing to embrace here, but Dillon somehow gets Chinasky under the skin, further illuminating Bukowski's primal appeal. Also terrific is Marisa Tomei as one of Chinaski's revolving door of hopeless lovers. Not known for her character work, Tomei smothers her bunny-slipper personality and reemerges as a hard-edged vixen of limited means, who gives herself to Chinaski just for the thrill of bottom feeding.
Using vivid, unexpected Minneapolis locations to backdrop Chinaski's travels and isolation (it ain't exactly Hell-A, but it works), "Factotum" exists in its own bleak bubble of isolation. It isn't an accessible picture, for sure, but that defining characteristic works in the film's favor, and it's an absorbing, hypnotic piece of scotch-soaked filmmaking.
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