USA Norway Germany Sweden France (94 mi) 2005 d: Bent Hamer
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods,
and the nights will flame with fire.
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.
It’s the only good fight there is.
—Charles Bukowski, excerpt from his 1992 poem Roll the Dice
The film is about fucking and drinking
There is an alluring Norweigan influence to this slow, perfectly paced, moody autobiographical adaptation of the life of Charles Bukowski based on his 1975 novel by the same name, a man whose sole desire seemed to be to stay drunk all the time, but who also had a strange fascination with words that kept bubbling out of his head, writing two or three short stories a week at one point, sending them off to would-be publishers (the Black Sparrow Press and The New Yorker) despite never hearing from them, supporting himself by finding a multitude of menial, dead-end odd jobs (Factotum – a man who performs many jobs) that held little interest, some that did not even last a day, the kind that blue collar workers and day laborers around the world are forced to take every day in order to survive, but here they provide a pay check to buy a drink. Shot largely in a bleak, factory district of Minneapolis/St.Paul, there’s a terrific scene where he’s ordered not to smoke on the job, then immediately pulls out a cigarette and blows smoke out a window, where the camera pulls back until eventually Bukowski is a tiny speck in a vast expanse of brick and industrial waste. Matt Dillon plays Bukowski (whose parents moved to Los Angeles from Germany when he was age 3), as a man with inner confidence and a quiet swagger, yet he narrates in a calm, steady tone, always shown at a very leisurely pace, at times barely able to get up off the barstool, mumbling, always polite, never as a man possessed, instead as a man who knows what lies within, who has utter faith in his abilities. At one point, when reflecting on moments when doubts enter his head about his ability to write, all he has to do is read somebody else’s writing and he has no more doubts.
Lili Taylor is exceptional as his drunken girl friend, matching him drink for drink, who is completely in love with this unpretentious lowlife who does nothing but lay around and screw her up to 4 times a day. After a few lucky runs at the race track, he starts dressing in style and buying more expensive booze, but she finds him a shell of his former self, a complete phony that has lost all appeal for her, as she prefers lowlifes, the lower the better. There’s a wonderful scene as they both awake one at a time in the morning, each separately wretches in the toilet, he immediately grabs a beer, she a cigarette, and within this realm of shifting orientation, with a minimum of words, they inexplicably separate. Penniless, spending his last dollar buying a drink for a girl in a bar (Marisa Tomei in her first onscreen nudity), she leads him to a temporary alcoholic promised land, where the drinks and lodging are all on the house, paid for by a sugar daddy who has younger lady interests to keep him company. This vision of happiness is a temporary oasis, a mirage in a lifetime of facing up to the hauntingly grim realities that lie under each and every phony facade. This is a film that exposes life on the edges, where he even returns home at one point, where mom shovels out a meal, but dad thinks he’s a worthless swine, so Bukowski offers to take dad out for a few cocktails, but he admits he’s looking to find a “piece of ass,” whereupon he’s thrown out on his ass, a wonderful scene that acknowledges how far he’s come from the world of decency. He hooks up again with Taylor, but they shortly realize why they split up, and they soon meander off again into their wretchedly pitiful lives.
There’s a highly personalized allure to this film, beautifully photographed by John Christian Rosenlund, capturing the poetic beauty of being alone with your thoughts in a dingy bar, with mesmerizing music by Kristen Asbjørnsen that couldn’t possibly sound more like solitude, where we come to accept the languorous pace of the film as a natural extension of Bukowski’s imagination, which edges forward in small cinematic portraits, like sketches, offering precise language and details, much like the exquisite flavor of short stories, made more powerfully intense by the superlative performances of the 3 major players who are always inviting, who continually add a measure of interest and authenticity to the material. By the end of the film, as Bukowski is a solitary customer watching a stripper in a surreal neon-lit landscape, you have a feel for the dreary ennui, for days that extend into nights, which could easily pass into an endless haze that stretches to infinity.