There are two kinds of smokers: those who bring the cigarette to their lips like a normal person, and those who move their whole head over to where the cigarette is, perched at the end of their arm several inches away. In Factotum, the new film adapted from Charles Bukowski's 1975 novel, Matt Dillon is the second kind. It's important. It's important that he brings his face to the cigarette, not the other way around, just like it's important that he walks with a hangover, all fragile head and treacherous stomach. And that his pants are always clean and his hair always combed. And that whatever else he's doing, he is always also shrugging. Not an "I dunno" shrug, but a "what'd you expect" one.
Matt Dillon isn't doing a Charles Bukowski imitation. Matt Dillon has become Henry Chinaski. The way he inhabits the character physically is important because it lets him show what most people fail to see about Bukowski and Chinaski, his fictional alter ego. And that is the gentleness of the monster, the genuine affection that mixes in with his general contempt. It's the helpless loving pat on the head he gives his woman (Lili Taylor) as he's walking out cold, after throwing up in her toilet, drinking her beer and handing her some money. It's him hitting her hard enough to knock her off a barstool, then later giving her his own shoes because her feet hurt. Without showing these things, Bukowski wouldn't be the writer he is, Chinaski wouldn't be the character he is, and Factotum wouldn't be the movie it is.
Directed by the Norwegian Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories), who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jim Stark, the film captures the complexity of the Bukowski mindset better than most. Wait, you're thinking. Complexity? The guy wrote about drunks in bars, losers and whores, the simpleminded scum of the earth. How complex can it be? But it is. Poets may not find Bukowski much of a poet—he clanged out his words to a specific purpose, and literary high-mindedeness was not it. But Hank Chinaski, reprobate that he may be, has a tender side, a vulnerable, touching confusion and yearning that's too often lost in the myth of old Buk as a college student's readymade excuse for weekday beer binges.
Like Dillon, Hamer finds that side of Chinaski and, in his quiet, unfussy way, lights it up. The film is not perfect; it drags toward the end, when it hits a natural stopping point and keeps going. But the episodic nature of Bukowski's writing suits Hamer's cool Scandinavian storytelling style. Both the director and the star understand the importance of quiet pauses; the film complements Bukowski's reverence for words with an appreciation for their economy. And both Hamer and Dillon understand that raging battles can be fought invisibly in total silence. When Chinaski says he "had to get the words down or else succumb to something worse than death," he doesn't have to yell it through gritted teeth or be accompanied by anxious violin music. He doesn't even say it out loud; it's an internal monologue. He's the only soldier in his war, and you can hear in his voice the sorrow and exhaustion mixed in with the more obvious rage. He's not just some barfly. He's the pissed-off, self-righteous, self-indulgent "fuck you" that festers inside every miserable bastard at the bar who's ever held down a shit job or bet his last dollar at the track or found brief solace between the thighs of some liquor-loving dame. He's all of them, but he's still all alone.
No wonder he drinks so much.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. Friday-Thursday, Sept. 1-7. Call for showtimes.