No one, in my opinion, wrote self-destruction as beautifully as Charles Bukowski. Although the gritty and squalid world he wrote about – of losers, drunks, and oddballs – may not always make for pleasant reading, there is something oddly cathartic about them, especially if you’ve gone through your own low, dark phase in the past. In this world, not only everyone hates everyone else, but also themselves. When you are going through one of these moments yourself, his writing acts like the comforting pat on the back from a buddy who is going through far worse problems than yours.
Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly is an adaptation of one of Bukowski’s stories, written by him before he found worldwide fame – a small, semi-autobiographical portion of his struggling days. And Schroder couldn’t have picked a better actor to play the alter-ego of Bukowski – Henry Chinaski – than Mickey Rourke, who was at the peak of his career in the 80s. Almost a decade back, Matt Dillon played the same character in Factotum, based on the Bukowski novel of the same name. Barfly opens outside a bar, in the middle of an ugly, on-going fight between Chinaski and a bartender. Both men are a mess, their faces covered in bruises, but one of them seems to be enjoying it a lot. Easy to guess who that is.
Jobless and broke, Chinaski is practically living inside bars. You can tell that he hasn’t had a proper meal in a while, and you begin to wonder where he finds the energy to start these fights. In one scene, he accidentally stumbles into someone else’s apartment, and upon realizing that it’s not his place, casually opens the refrigerator and takes whatever he can before someone catches him red-handed. During another one of his binge-drinking days, he meets a kindred spirit Wanda (Faye Dunaway) someone who has plenty of issues of her own and is as drunk as he is. “I hate people”, she tells him, and when she asks him if he does too, he replies, “No, but I feel better when they are not around.” It’s one of his oft-quoted lines.
In fact, the film has several memorable lines like these, one of which you may have seen floating around on Facebook: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.” Wanda isn’t interested in a romantic relationship, and he seems to be okay with that. He tells her not to worry, and, “No one has ever loved me yet.” It’s hard not to feel a little choked up by that line. He moves into her apartment and agrees to split the rent between them. While Chinaski seems to have accepted the misery in his life a long time ago, Wanda is still struggling to deal with hers, and occasionally shows signs of mental and emotional instability. When Chinaski is offered a chance at redemption by a beautiful publisher Tully (Alice Krige), he reluctantly accepts.
This alliance blossoms into a romantic relationship a while later, complicating things with Wanda in the process. Rourke’s portrayal of Chinaski is so good that it didn’t take very long for me to identify with his character. There were moments in the film where I felt like he was reading my mind and taking words out of my mouth. And Dunaway, one of the iconic actresses of the New Hollywood era, earns our sympathy in a performance that can be regarded as her best since 1975’s Network. At one point, Chinaski calls Wanda a “distressed goddess”, and that’s exactly what Dunaway plays. Oh, and look out for that blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from Bukowski.