Mickey Rourke's performance is part impersonation and part "Method" - it is a kind of woozy acting turn that challenges the audience to decide if we are watching a comedy or a tragedy. In it's own way, Rourke's work here is brilliant but seems intentionally off-key. It was also very shocking to see Rourke look like he did in this film at that time. This wasn't the scruffy erotic dare sort of work audiences were used to.
Faye Dunaway is truly brilliant. Her work in this film was tragically ignored. This is one of the few times I've seen Dunaway play against type and in opposition to her movie star persona. This is pre-plastic surgery Dunaway and an actor trying to escape the camp fever she created as Joan Crawford. While Cher was great in "Moonstruck" it still seems unfair that Dunaway's work failed to receive the praise it deserved.
The movie has aged incredibly well. Even at the time I first saw it I remember thinking it could have easily been set in the 1970's. It has a timeless feel.
It also captures the essence of Bukowski's personality, philosophy and legend. It was rumored that both Rourke and Dunaway detested Barbet Schroeder. This is all the more interesting as he somehow pulled them to give some of their finest acting work.
Mickey Rourke in the title role, takes method acting to a whole new level. I'm not sure what happened between takes, but I feel that he might have stayed in character, didn't shower, probably wore the same clothes, and went by the name of his lead, Henry Chinaski. He drinks like a fish, inhabits the slumming L.A. bars, and gets into fights with a bartender named Eddie (played effectively by Sly Stallone's brother, Frank Stallone). When he's not fighting, failing to pay his rent, and aspiring to be a writer, he gets the attention of a beautiful older woman (another drunk played by Faye Dunaway as Wanda Wilcox). They form an interesting relationship that anchors a large majority of what's on screen. As they wallow in their drunkenness, Henry is pursued by a detective and a women news writer who wants to publish one of his stories.
Almost feeling like a film told in a dreamlike state, Barfly is a character study that revels in irony and self-loathing. It's dirty, free forming, and harbors grubby, all too realistic performances. The side characters are people who you'd find in an alley and kinda look like homeless vagabonds. This is truly Los Angeles at its most depressing and most hideous. The script is based on the writings and life of the famed novelist Charles Bukowski. And the short running time sort of ends and begins in the same exact way. There are some quotable lines, an honest, demented take on the concept of dying, and a cameo by the screenwriter and novelist himself.
Ultimately, it's Rourke's shining moment and Barfly succeeds because of him and almost nothing else. During the first half of the proceedings, his inebriated Henry utters the line, "don't worry, no one's loved me yet." Well this critic loved Mickey's realistic, balls out performance. Forget his Oscar nominated turn in The Wrestler. This is "bar" none, his best work.