by Brody Rossiter
Based upon Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood exploits throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Barfly is a booze-soaked semi-autobiographical depiction of the illustrious yet widely loathed author and poet and his rampant alcoholism. Starring Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, an eloquent yet perpetually inebriated individual, the film follows Henry’s spontaneous and addictive romance with fellow heavy drinker, Wanda (Faye Dunaway).
Despite his inability to function without first sinking a few glasses of Scotch, Henry is a talented writer capable of salvaging captivating words from his drunken stupor. Unfortunately the vast majority of his time is spent perched upon a bar stool or face down in a pool of his own post-brawl blood.
Henry and Wanda quickly develop a mutual appreciation for one another’s drinking habits and fall head first into a series messy romantic liaisons fuelled on smokes and bottles stamped with percentages. They apply for menial jobs and fight either each other or fellow hapless individuals with whom they cross paths with while drunkenly navigating Los Angeles. Ultimately, that’s the top and bottom of Barfly’s self-destructive narrative and yet it’s undeniably captivating following such depravity as it repeatedly tumbles off a cliff and somehow lands in the pool house of an arts review editor.
Rourke and Duaway’s dedicated performances become unsettling caricatures as they hole up in a sparse apartment (the actual apartment Bukowski inhabited with his lover Jane Baker Cooley) and ruminate on love and life while chasing the bottom of the bottle. Bukowski was unhappy with the many eccentricities Rourke brought to the role, but his crumpled physicality and elaborate, self-aware delivery shape Henry into a strange and unique leading man who becomes increasingly difficult to not care about despite his countless flaws.
Bukowski himself penned the screenplay for French director Barbet Schroeder, so the accuracy of the events depicted may be questionable. Nevertheless, individuals who came into contact with the author during his life have very few kind words to share about him, and ultimately the romanticised nature of the film may hide even darker origins than the distinctly destitute portrait pieced together onscreen. Barfly is a strange and uncomfortable watch that finds purpose in portraying a largely worthless existence, yet its unexpected artistry forms a grimy indie gem and one of Rourke’s most notably dysfunctional performances.