OldKingClancy posted a MOVIE REVIEW item: 3 months ago



Directed by: Barbet Schroeder
Written by: Charles Bukowski
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Frank Stallone
Studio: The Cannon Group
Genre: Drama
Official Site:
Plot: Somewhat Damaged


I’ve never read anything from Charles Bukowski but I’ve heard his name mentioned as one of the great alcoholic writers which is a reputation unto itself but I digress. Barfly, a semi-autobiographical piece based on Bukowski’s life, is a film I’ll probably find myself thinking back on from time to time because it’s the first film that’s presented a dysfunctional and co-dependent relationship in an almost positive light and I’m still not sure how to take it but damn if it’s got me thinking about it.

The film follows Henry Chinaski – Bukowski’s alter-ego – a destitute alcoholic who spends his time writing short stories for people who don’t read them and killing himself either through booze or through his constant fist-fights with bartender Eddie. After one fight too many at his local bar Henry finds a new place where he meets Wanda, a fellow lonely alcoholic who invites him back to her place. The two of them quickly stumble into a relationship with their shared love of booze and hatred of other people and agree to try and make something together, but with their own vices and their own fuck-ups to contend with, it seems like neither of them are ready for a relationship.

This is definitely more of a character piece than an actual story with the relationship between Henry and Wanda taking up the majority of the film, both being alcoholic, lonely and broken you’d expect them to bring out the best in each other and lead to a happy ending but the film doesn’t take that easy route, instead they revel in the drunken mess they create together. It’s one of the best portrayals I’ve seen of a co-dependent relationship, neither one of these two should be with the other and yet by the film’s ending you’re left wondering if learning nothing and changing nothing is worth it just to be happy in the ignorance. It’s one of, if not the only happy ending where I have to question just how happy it actually is.

Because the central relationship is between Henry and Wanda they get the main focus of the film, there are fun side-characters like the elderly hooker blowing everyone in the bathroom, the lone two paramedics who respond to every call from Wanda’s apartment and Eddie himself who’s an angry macho-man feeling the need to prove himself against the more laidback and no-shit-giving Henry.

One of the film’s more normal characters is Tully Sorenson, a publisher who takes a liking to Henry’s work, while she does represent a chance of escape for Henry his rejection of her ties into the film’s central theme of Henry being the cause of his own misery. She’s an easy out and the film still ignores her.

Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Henry Chinaski was met with some hesitation from Bukowski who said Rourke ‘overperformed’ and to an extent I can see where he’s coming from but Rourke has such a desolate presence onscreen I can overlook it. From his constant hunch to self-destructive personality to his voice muffled by a never-ending cigarette, Henry is a fucked-up mess of a man who actively goes looking for trouble, he’s not quite all there and always seems to be one bad mistake away from being killed but he somehow survives each day with a fresh new hatred for the world around him. Despite that though there is something inherently charismatic about Rourke’s performance, he has a poet’s heart and can appear quite eloquent when he’s not off his mind on drink. There’s a tragedy to the character that probably comes from a very personal introspection on Bukowski’s part to recognise the waste of talent that Henry, and by extension himself, was through losing it all to the drink.

Wanda, played by Faye Dunaway, is of a similar ilk, when we first meet her she’s dishevelled, drunk, sweaty and willing to take Henry home after an exchange of 10 words but after making it for so long as a career alcoholic she’s found a way to tidy herself up when needed. Surviving on the pay of her married lover, she has a more enveloping loneliness, it radiates off her at times which explains why she’s so easy to get into bed though she tries to blame it on the drink. There’s a subtlety to Dunaway’s performance that really makes it work alongside the more outward Henry, you get the sense that being with him is giving her a reason to be happy again even if it’s only because she has someone to share the loneliness with.

What’s so interesting about their relationship is just how badly they seem to fuck it up and still they end up together, Wanda sleeps with Eddie, Henry sleeps with Tully, Wanda nearly kills him with a blow to the head and yet for one reason or another they still end up together. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t see this having a happy ending because it’s obvious these two are terrible together when they’re sober but at the same time they’re near perfect for each other drunk and they’re almost constantly drunk, it’s rare to see this type of relationship get any screen time at all but I’ll commend them for going all out there on showing all sides of just how great and terrible this relationship is.

The film is directed by Barbet Schroeder who does some relatively low-key work, the primary focus is the characters but Schroder captures the mood needed to encapsulate their desolate and broken lives. Henry’s bar is a constantly low-lit, seedy place with customers almost as scummy as the countertops; Wanda’s apartment is scarce and barren with chipped walls and no carpet but completely unable to afford anything better. At times the film comes off like a play with very few locations and a great time spent at each one, allowing us to get a feel for the film, to have that sweat pour off the screen, it’s not so bad to openly disgust anyone but there’s a very rundown, very bottom-of-the-barrel feel to it all and it almost becomes second nature so that when Henry gets uncomfortable with Tully’s upper-class home it’s kinda understandable.

There are a few moments of odd comedy thrown in to lighten the mood including a John arguing with a hooker over her blowjob skills in the middle of a bar, a husband and wife who openly and loudly have BDSM style sex that’s constantly mistaken for domestic violence and even Henry himself and how he reacts to the world around him, be it trying to start a fight with Eddie or scaring a couple who prefer kissing in their car to driving at the green light by pushing them into traffic. These little moments are humorous and add levity to the drunkenness, but what Bukowski and Schroeder understand is that these scenes are merely distractions from Henry’s own depressing lifestyle. For a film about alcoholism it’s surprisingly light-hearted at times, it when you look back with hindsight you see just how truly awful this life is and it hits even harder than neither Henry nor Wanda ever seem to realise that, when it comes to Hollywood and alcohol there has to be come lesson learnt, with this film nothing is ever learnt, we end just as we start and it’s that slow, sad realisation that packs so much more of an emotional punch than most anything covering the same subject.

I can’t remember exactly why I looked towards Barfly but I’m happy I did, there’s a bravery to this type of film that’s rare to see and rarer to pull off but they do it here with one of the best dysfunctional relationships put to film and Rourke and Dunaway pulling out some of the best work as the drunken mess of a pairing. It hides its sorrow well and leaves you questioning its own happy ending but with that it allows you to see life at rock bottom and just what happens when you get comfortable there.



Back to OldKingClancy's MOVIE REVIEWS