The thing about Matt Dillon lately is like: Wha’? Where’d he come from again all of a sudden, and so newly weirdly interesting to boot? I have vague memories of Dillon as one of the dream-inducing Brat Pack back when I was a teenager in the 80s — you know, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders. I do mean vague, though: he never did it for me (I was more into the blond hotties). And maybe that’s why I have this sense that he disppeared for years, even though he was obviously keeping plenty busy appearing in lots of flicks all through the late 80s and through the 90s. But then came a string of junk like One Night at McCool’s and There’s Something About Mary (I know, I know: everyone and their grannie thinks this is a classic: I think it’s a nightmare of adolescent terror passing as “humor”) in which Dillon appeared, but almost, it seemed to me, out of desperation, out of mere need for a paycheck. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — hey, we all gotta pay the bills — but there was nothing there that made you sit up and take notice.
But now there’s Factotum, just out on DVD. This is … wow. Dillon is Henry, a would-be writer who works dead-end jobs — barely, and poorly, until he gets fired for being a punk — and has purely, um, practical relationships with women. We learn about Henry the writer’s matter-of-fact approach to life, which involves lots of alcohol, athletic sex, and, oh dear, the complete ignoring of advice from medical personnel through his bald-faced voiceovers, which Dillon delivers with a cocky denseness that is at once hilarious and poignant: you wonder, can anyone really be this offhand about absolutely everything? Not that you ever feel sorry for Henry — Henry is a man, dammit, and will brook no sentimentality. And neither does the film, by Norweigan filmmaker Bent Hamer, working from the semiautobiographical novel by Charles Bukowski. Hamer and Dillon don’t care whether you feel sorry for Henry, and they don’t even particulary care if you like him. And you probably won’t — he’s a cold bastard, but he’s a cold bastard whose thoroughly cynical eye gives him a clear perspective on the basest components of this thing called life. It’s an extraordinary performance from Dillon that marks him as an actor looking to make a leap to far greater dedication to craft, and most of the way there already.
Match up Factotum with Crash (read my full review), last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, for a flipside look at the new Dillon. His L.A. cop stands out in this ensemble piece for the hidden depths Dillon brings to what could have been a caricature of a dark-hearted racist. The simmering rage Dillon just barely keeps from bubbling over ends up being dissipated in a way entirely unlike what we expect — I won’t spoil the scene for those who haven’t seen the movie, but watch for the scene at the centerpoint of the film involving a car crash and the return of a citizen with which the cop had a previous, and very different encounter. Dillon makes one beautiful, quiet moment in this scene work in the way that a massive explosion of anger might have had the story gone another way. His cop, more, perhaps, than any other character in the film, becomes the valve through which all its negative energy bleeds off in the best, most positive way possible. I can’t think of another actor who’d have played this moment more perfectly: Dillon’s complex performance here has been seared into my mind.