It's probably safe to say that Factotum is not the feel good movie of the summer. In fact it may be the most wrist-slashing flick I've seen thus far, though I make that comment without a pejorative tinge. There's been plenty of movies I've really loved, which also made me want to throw myself under a bus after walking out of the theater. Factotum is like this, even as it's incredibly depressing, it's also exhilarating with its gritty vignettes, naturalistic performances and subtle cinematography. Also, this could be the best performance of Matt Dillon's career, and that's with taking into consideration such disparate entries as The Outsiders, Something About Mary and Wild Things.
Dillon plays Henry Chinaski, a Charles Bukowski alter-ego who appeared in a number of his novels, including Factotum which this script draws from, in addition to a number of Bukowski short stories. Chinaski is a factotum, a man who does many jobs, all of which he does barely half-heartedly and mostly as a time filler between his drinking, womanizing, gambling and writing. Hank isn't a man who lives to work, he works once in a while, maybe, to get by. The script co-written by Norwegian director Bent Hamer and Jim Stark, a frequent collaborator of Jim Jarmusch's, plays up the episodic nature of Hank's lifestyle in an almost Don Quixote-esque manner. Like Cervantes' hero, Hank has more ideals than follow through and he finds temporary Sancho Panzas for his adventures in his lady friends, played memorably by Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei, and briefly a work buddy, Fisher Stevens.
All of these excellent performers give nuanced performances, revealing this life on the edge as hardly glamorous. Their lives seems so tough living from one meager paycheck to another rough, cheap night cap, that they can barely speak without evident pain. All of their dialogue is spoken through clenched jaws and half mast eyes. They're tough to watch because they all evoke such empathy. But there's also humor in the movie, for instance in the almost slapstick sequence when an unfortunate Henry comes down with a mean case of the crabs and doesn't heed the doctor's advice on application duration for his medication. There's a glee and yet a tenderness in the way that Taylor wraps ups Dillon's aching balls, that makes for a classic exchange.
There are no real happy endings in Bukowski's world or Hamer's movie, though it does seem that Hank will finally get some stories published that he's been diligently submitting to literary magazines. This movie would rather dwell on the snatches of poetics which can be glimpsed by an artist in this down and out world. Words and their expression are all. They are necessary things. The man who knows this understands that in life "there's only one judge, and that is the writer."