Movies about self-destructive antiheroes run a delicate balancing act: go too light and be accused of sprinkling Hollywood pixie dust over an essentially grim subject; go too dark and risk placing the audience on suicide watch. I still have memories of emerging gobsmacked from a matinee screening of Leaving Las Vegas, only to watch (and quickly join) the bulk of the attendees as they staggered across the street to the nearest bar.
Factotum, an adaptation of the semiautobiographical novel by boozer-sage Charles Bukowski, gets the mixture right—refusing to sugarcoat the nature of the inwardly torpedoing protagonist (here a bearded, growly Matt Dillon), but permitting a few hazy rays of light to shine through here and there. As evidenced in his earlier Kitchen Stories, the gifted Norwegian (and not-at-all-porn-pseudonymous) director Bent Hamer has a knack for coaxing nuance out of deadpan, and his efforts here linger longer than can be easily aspirined away.
Set in a remarkably dank sector of Minneapolis, Hamer and co-writer Jim Stark's script follows Dillon's aspiring novelist (and frequent Bukowski alter ego) Henry Chinaski as he trips through a succession of dead-end jobs and deader-ending relationships (including trysts with the always dependable Lili Taylor and a surprisingly mordant Marisa Tomei). Wispy as it is, this framework provides just enough of a structure to distinguish between the various woozy degrees of its hero's downward spiral. The heaviest lifting, however, belongs to Dillon, an actor who has often seemed content to coast. Although perhaps a little too hale and hearty for the part (and possessing a peek-a-boo accent of unknown origin), he nevertheless conveys the fascinating, fatalistic essence of his creator. Whether up or down, high and/or mighty, it's clear that he spends most of his time waiting for the final gong.