Barfly (1987)

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Barfly (1987)

Directed by: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige

Rated: R

Running Time: 1 h 40 m

TMM Score: 4 stars out of 5

STRENGTHS: Writing, Acting

WEAKNESSES: Subject Matter


A semi-autobiographical film about the alcoholic author and poet, Charles Bukowski.


My Thoughts


I’m a huge fan of Bukowski’s work. I’ve read a number of his Henry Chinaski novels and three or four of his volumes of poetry. Bukowski is a man that doesn’t care what you think of him; he’s not afraid to be brash or bold and in your face; he’s often crass and inappropriate; but he finds beauty in broken places. Bukowski was an unapologetic alcoholic all his life- he never thought that his alcoholism was a horrible problem, even though multiple people urged him to get help. Many of Bukowski’s books, particularly the Chinaski ones, are based on his exploits in Los Angeles during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Bukowski didn’t do much other than drink, gamble, sleep off his hangovers, and chase women. He wasn’t a great man, but he never claimed to be either. Charles Bukowski was a man who saw the saddest places in the world and found beauty there. Though he’s known for his vulgar language and sometimes sexist portrayal of women, I’ve talked to both men and women who agree that he’s a man that tried to find goodness, even when there was very little to be found. The day this review posts (8/16/2018) would’ve been Bukowski’s ninety-eighth birthday.

"I felt better when everything was in disorder."

I have a hard time believing that people unfamiliar with Bukowksi’s work will be able to appreciate this movie properly. That’s not to discourage anyone from watching this movie- it’s incredibly well written and acted- it’s just that this movie feels exactly like one of Bukowski’s Chinaski novels (Bukowski himself wrote the script, and he based it on some of his years of heavier drinking).  What that means however is that the film at times can feel rather aimless and wandering. There isn’t much of a conventional plot in this movie; it’s more about watching two characters interact with each other, two characters that are very broken, but somehow, they fit together to make each other a little more whole. The two leads in this film are Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) as Henry Chinaski, and Faye Dunaway (Network) as Wanda Wilcox. Both of the main characters in this film are alcoholics, they make rash decisions and squander money, their hair is greasy and their eyes are perpetually red and hazy, they constantly get into fights, swear and tell lies to get by, and care for nothing over other than finding the next drink. The way Henry and Wanda meet one another is perfect.

Henry walks up to Wanda in a bar and sits down, and Wanda, without looking at Henry, speaks. Wanda: I can’t stand people. Henry: Oh yeah? Wanda: Do you hate them? Henry: No, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.

This sort of introduction to the character’s relationship is far different than many movies I’ve seen. It shows how unique these characters really are. They aren’t great people- that’s for sure- but as far as characters go they’re incredibly fascinating. In fact, the characters and relationships in this film are all based on people or amalgams of people that Bukowski knew in real life. They’re characters that we aren’t used to seeing on the screen; the degenerates and lowlifes, the people that need a glass of scotch as soon as they wake up in the morning. Bukowski doesn’t try to glamorize this lifestyle or show it as being this great thing, in fact, much of this film is written with an underlying tone of self-loathing, as are many of Bukowski’s books. Though Bukowski never really apologized for his alcoholism, there are things throughout his writing that would make you think he wasn’t always happy about it; after all he joked about having over three hundred hangovers a year, and I can’t imagine that’s a very happy existence. I think Rourke and Dunaway really did a lot to bring life to Henry and Wanda- their characters seem to slur their way from one scene to the next, not really accomplishing anything other than talking and wishing about things in their hazy futures. I read that Bukowski himself thought Rourke overacted a little bit (he had wanted Sean Penn to play the part), but I thought Rourke did fine. Alice Krige (Silent Hill), who plays Tully, a publicist interested in Henry’s writings also did a fine job. Her character is far more straight-laced than the others in the story, and having her play the straight man, as it were, helps really show how ridiculous some of the situations in this film are.

At its heart this movie is a dark comedy. It’s a film that takes a look at the lives of these self-proclaimed bums and in a self-deprecating way it pokes fun at the way they’re living. The humor is quite dark and dry, but the humor is there, just like the beauty is there, if you look for it. As I was watching this, I kept making tenuous comparisons to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, as far as overall tone. Where that movie took a darkly humorous look at heroin addiction, this one took a look at alcohol addiction. But while there are humorous moments, I wouldn’t by any means call this a light watch either; Henry can be a rather nasty and crass drunk. He gets in fights sometimes and he threatens to hit woman (though he never does), though he doesn’t always go looking for trouble, it seems to find him a lot. The thing about Bukowski was that he always pictured himself as the underdog, and he was always, as he says in his book “Ham on Rye,” punching up.


I, personally, really enjoyed this film, but I feel like I came at it with a tainted perspective. Being a huge fan of Bukowski’s work, it was actually really nice to finally hear and see the man’s words performed on screen. This isn’t a film I would recommend to many people- it’s a movie about a rough topic, but it has a lot to say about the people that live those kinds of lives. Rourke and Dunaway both give impressive performances, and Bukowski’s writing, as always, rings loudly with truths that others are too afraid to speak.




Review Written By:

Seth Steele