Drugstore Cowboy (1989), or Is Everybody In?

10 07 2009

Matt Dillon usually strikes me as the kind of guy that would beat me up in the middle of a bar, stand me up again, buy me a drink, and beat me up some more after my third sip. He’s a wild card, a maverick who plays by his own rules, even if his own rules state implicitly to fall into semi-obscurity. But where did this rebellious side come from? Did he eat paste as a child? Were his parents cynical superheroes like Green Arrow and Black Canary? Or is he just a snarling, pissed-off Sleestak underneath a thin skin-like disguise? Questions abound, but I know deep in my heart that Matt Dillon has a master plan for us all, including his own meandering career. Why do I believe that? Because I just watched Drugstore Cowboy today (thanks to a Goregirl recommendation), and I just remembered how good Matt Dillon is at what he does.

Drugstore Cowboy takes place in ’71, along the Pacific NW. It follows a junkie named Bob who brings his friends and his wife along from small town to small town so they can feed their habit. They rob pharmacies and hospitals to get by without withdrawing, and they live the care-free lives of individuals whose actions have not yet caught up to them. Bob is a superstitious nut-job with a philosophy that defies all logic, Beth is similarly nutty, but with enough common sense to call Bob on his shit, and the rest of them are violent youths who have yet to learn the meaning of the true desperation that they flirt with. The film starts out frolicking and fancy-free, with the kids on the top of the world and the drugs in hefty supply. But all good things must come to an end, especially in violent crime and drug use, so when their luck runs out at last, can Bob save them from an untimely jail stint, or can he pull through in the way that only a superstitious junkie can?

This is a dark movie, but it’s not exactly a Requiem For A Dream-like soul-draining affair. It’s actually a pretty good watch, as far as I saw it. I could watch this again tonight. It has a lightness of being that really has to be attributed to both the youth and daring of the cast as well as the direction of youth-enthusiast Gus Van Sant. Young Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham ricochet back and forth along the screen like lightning, soaking up every bit of light the camera and the Pacific NW can muster. James LeGros makes a big impression as the strange and violent Rick. And Matt Dillon steals the show as Bob the philosophizing junkie. They all have a great deal of chemistry (pun intended), as well as that certain something that really brings together a road movie about friends.

Damn, Gus Van Sant can direct! And he does so in the most peculiar way. He lets everything just HAPPEN. He is one of the most naturalistic American directors alive today. This would become a hallmark later in his career, as this is only his second feature film, and his first, including his short films, not featuring gratuitous amounts of hot gay guys. It’s all about the trust he puts in the scene. He seems incredibly content with letting the world roll off his camera’s lens. He chooses to create a world which is not that much different at all from real life, and that alone is a surprising affectation in movie-making. And what really makes me admire him in this film is that he looks at these youths with neither respect nor derision. He is content to let this volatile group of junkies do what they want without bias on the part of the filmmaker. It’s a bold move, and, just as importantly, allows the characters to breathe while at the same time allowing the audience to make its own decision.

Keep an eye out for what might be one of the better cameos in film history, when William S. Burroughs (!!!) makes an appearance as a former priest! He spouts out diatribes on how the right-wing government is evil! I couldn’t agree more! And I love the Beat Generation, even if it stood for absolutely nothing at times! So bravo to Gus Van Sant for having the foresight to put one of my favorite Beats in a movie for me to enjoy! What prescience!

Drugstore Cowboy is a film about youth; beautiful, stupid, wasted youth. It’s a lesson on the tenets of hard drug use, and a sobering reminder that once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. The acting is good, surprisingly so,  and the direction is driven with a vision that I really connect with. It’s not perfect; some of the characters (Rick is a waste of space character that pisses me off despite the good job by James LeGros at trying to portray him…), and the smart dialog often seems kind of forced when coming from Dillon’s street-tough mouth. But I certainly enjoyed it overall, and am motivated to go see the rest of Van Sant’s early works. Until I find those gems, though, I give this gem 8 1/2 Naked Lunches out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow is a surprise movie! Keep checking in with me, and I’ll keep you informed!!!

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