I heard Bingham Ray talking about this film in the other day. He loved it, he told a friend, and was very proud of Matt Dillon's performance in it. "It's a whole new Matt," Ray assured a skeptical friend. But I'm not sure that's accurate. Look at the path Dillon has trod over the past 25 years: from Over the Edge to Midnight Cowboy, from There's Something About Mary to Crash, I simply don't think it would be a stretch to say that Charles Bukowski is/was/wrote the role that Dillon was born to play. He immerses himself completely into this thing, from the limp to the monotone slur. But Factotum, based on Bukowski's second novel about the slow and sordid misadventures of one Henry Chinaski, isn't just an actor's showcase. By highlighting Bukowski's self-mocking humor, director Bent Hamer turns Chinaski into a much more sympathetic character than the played by Mickey Rourke in Barfly. You don't just feel sorry for this Hank – in fact, at times, you sort of want to have a beer with him.
Factotum the film is more or less faithful to Factotum the book – which is to say, it's less interested in the story it's telling than in the language used to tell it. There's a part where Chinaski tells us, over voiceover, that he's confident that he can outwrite just about anyone – but the image we see, whilst he's telling us this, is of Dillon stumbling down a late night street, and into a sleazy bar. It's the inherent contradiction of the film: Chinaski/Bukowski is perfectly to hold court over his sleazy little world, and to generally approach the trials of existence with a total policy of passive resistance – even though an outplan is easily visible on the other side.
And so he hops from one menial non-career to another: he drives an ice truck (straight to a bar to get drunk) ; he bottles pickles (until he's fired for showing up drunk); he applies for a job as a newspaper reporter and gets one as a janitor (and then skips out on his first shift to – say it with me know – get drunk). All the while, the Great American Novel chugs along, a pile of loose leaf pages scrawled on in longhand, sitting amidst empty bottles on the corner of his desk. To be fair, Hank has his share of non-liquid distractions, most of them female in nature. He meets Jan (Lili Taylor) in (where else?) a bar, and soon enough they've shacked up in sordid bliss. Hank likes Jan because "she's a good fuck ... she takes it like she's getting stabbed with a knife." To be frank, there's not much more to like. Jan is clingy and manipulative; she likes Hank best when he's too drunk to get out of bed. It's not much surprise how the relationship turns out – I've never known a coupling based on daylight kitchen sex and jug wine drunk driving to go anywhere good. And Hank knows how he's failed her. So goes the voiceover: "I fucked better as a bum than as a puncher of timeclocks."
And so Hank, and the film, float along from scene to scene, from bar to bar, from broad to broad, and we go with. Factotum will not please devotees of narrative closure, but it's a must for Bukowski completists, and anyone who lives by our hero's credo: "if you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't try at all."
Others on Factotum: Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter calls Matt Dillon "pitch-perfect" in "a sweetly observed character study of a thoughtful man with a hair-trigger knack for irritating others and few illusions".