Saturday, December 2, 2023
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Barfly Review

There’s something rather admirable about how alcohol can loosen the system up. Back when I was trying to break into writing consistently, I’d have a couple drinks to think outside the box. A few vodkas here, a couple cans there, it was pretty grim upon reflection, and the cash I could’ve saved on booze and greasy burgers is an embarrassing admission of just how poor my money management skills were. Still, the quality was there and I truly believed alcohol was the key to unlocking some form of potential. Again, reflecting on this, it’s just not true, and it’s why I’m so interested in Barfly. A late 80s piece, deep-fried in neon lighting and grim interiors, with Mickey Rourke playing downtrodden writer Henry Chinaski.

This film from the mind of Barbet Schroeder offers up some dingy examples of alcoholism and the violence found within it all. It’s rather good, Rourke’s leading performance shows a young writer in the throes of addiction, rejecting all help offered to him. From little pockets of finance to overwhelming moments of genuine intimacy and emotion, he rejects it all in favour of a squalid lifestyle. The despair found in not being able to get the basics right. Cooking, conversation, walking, all of it becomes secondary to finding a quick gulp of booze and someone willing to spare him the time of day.

A rather tragic life is presented, and Chinaski’s direction captures the sheer brutality of it. Tremendously horrid, showcasing a vicious cycle that seems nigh on impossible to break out of whatsoever. I’m not quite taken away by some of the performances and technical aspects. Rourke’s performance may start as a great barfly, but he soon strays into a rather charmless impersonation of an alcoholic, clutching to a bottle and only sometimes being able to slur something together that makes any lick of sense. Whenever he manages to do so, it’s only to progress the story. We have little downtime to learn about this character apart from the fact that he is, apparently, a writer. A character study without studying the characters at the heart of the drama, a truly odd choice to make.

Barfly has all the makings of a decent drama, one that has been forgotten somewhat by those looking for an inevitably solid adaptation of alcohol abuse. Never managing to get across the finish line, and certainly not in one piece, Chinaski and Rourke hold themselves up as best they can, but begin to sag towards the end. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected anything more from a film that doesn’t offer much depth or range in the way of style. Dingy surroundings, and rather cliché moments of progression make for, ultimately, a frustrating but interesting time. Nursing a pint has never looked so grim.

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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