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"Factotum": A life of the rocks
Special to The Seattle Times
He's not exactly J.R.R. Tolkien, but to masses of mistrustful Charles Bukowski disciples, the author inspires nearly the same kind of piety that kept Peter Jackson so vigilant in bringing "The Lord of the Rings" saga to the screen.
In "Factotum," even the most bleary, bloodshot eyes will see a wrenching faithfulness of spirit in Matt Dillon's candid portrayal of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's autobiographical doppelgänger. Dillon inhabits the role with blunt ferocity in a sketchy parable that's as committed to the underground literary icon's legacy as a drunk is dedicated to keeping his demons wherever they need to be.
The movie is based on Bukowski's eponymous novel, along with material adapted from some short stories. It moves in the disreputable fashion of a functional alcoholic — always in control but infused with a perception of reality that conceals a serious disorder.
This collision of creativity has a distinctly European feel — not surprising since the director is a Norwegian embarking on his first English-language production. Bent Hamer and his co-screenwriter Jim Stark adhere to the anti-Hollywood filmmaking philosophy of the American independents, but the movie's sense of wobbly stillness suggests not only the essence of its drunk protagonist, but a novelty of manner that thrives with rare cinematic force.
And "Factotum" is a triumph. It's also an unforgiving experience and Hank a thoroughly despicable fellow. He possesses qualities that may be endearing — a flash of mordant wisdom here, a shyly furrowed grin there — but his down-and-out antics are a profound weight on anyone who gets close.
As the title card tells us, this factotum is "a man who never had a job he liked, and never kept a job he had." For Hank, his jobs — pickle inspector, janitor, bicycle-parts factory worker — are merely means to keep the liquor flowing and keep his scribbled stories and poems on their way to the rejection bins of potential publishers. He's most comfortable hiding out in dingy hovels or breathing the fumes of stale smoke and cheap scotch in a dimly lit bar.
Cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund captures the film's drab ambiance brilliantly with warm stabs of light piercing through shut blinds or neon-flecked whorls of dust. In this bleak milieu, Hank pairs up with Jan, a kindred barfly with misdirected self-esteem that matches Hank's drink-to-drink, retch-to-retch. She's brought fiercely to life by Lili Taylor.
Hank also meets another, higher-class drunk named Laura (a gloriously tatty Marisa Tomei), who brings him home to the brokedown palace of a creepy French millionaire (Didier Flamand). He shares the place with an odd assortment of women, reluctantly allowing Hank to occupy space there until Hank grows tired of it all. And he grows tired of most everything.
All of these scenes are illustrative of the movie's pace, which is weary but never tedious. There is a morose humor of the most deadpan variety in the picaresque episodes, but it is Dillon's barely suppressed rage and ardor to become a published writer that gives it such a dynamic soul.
The dry, raspy voice-over Dillon delivers with laconic perfection even when dead drunk gives breadth to a character more loathsome, complex and enthralling than the hateful cop that got him and an Oscar nomination in "Crash." Nothing escapes his observation, and what he sees is as wretched as the way he feels.
It's a phenomenal performance lifting Dillon to the top ranks of America's finest actors.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company