Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Screenplay by Daniel Yost and Gus Van Sant, based on a novel by
by Robert Yeoman .
Music by Elliot Goldenthal.
Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham, Max Perlich, James Remar, Grace
Zabriskie, William S. Burroughs.
Rated: R -- language, drugs.
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Set under the
oppressive, overcast skies of Portland, Oregon, in
1971, Drugstore Cowboy boldly stakes out a piece of cinematic fringe territory,
as seemingly remote as the chilly little corner of the world in which this dead-end road
movie takes place. In a late-'80s America obsessed with winners, and a contemporary
climate of anti-drug sentiment verging on hysteria, Van Sant has made a devastatingly
funny, melancholy but unromanticized picture about a bedraggled band of doped-up losers --
with no apologies to (or excuses for) anybody. It's a shame you even feel the need to
mention that this isn't a revisionist anti-drug tract, or a seductive glamorization of
narcotics use/abuse. That much ought to be as apparent as it is irrelevant to what this
movie's up to.
By Jim Emerson
The deadpan comic buzz you get
from Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy is practically narcotic. The movie heightens
your senses and mildly anesthetizes them at the same time, like a potent mixture of
stimulants and depressants. One of the most invigoratingly original American comedies
since Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Drugstore Cowboy follows
druggy, irregular rhythms all its own. Whether in a heavy-lidded daze or wired with giddy,
post-high paranoia, Drugstore Cowboy displays an uncanny alertness to detail and
texture -- yellow-white bus headlights that barely penetrate the slate-gray,
late-afternoon gloom on a rain-drenched northwestern road; the surreal surge of blood into
a hypodermic syringe as it enters a vein in intensified close-up... But the film's vibrant
aliveness to such minute sensations is submerged beneath a cold, clammy complexion: the
blue-gray pallor of a day-old corpse.
The first shot fixes us inside the consciousness of Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon, in a
perfectly modulated performance), the 26-year-old leader of a scruffy, four-person
pharmaceutical burglary ring. Staring semi-catatonically into the camera from his
mattress, with hallucinatory lights playing across over his cold-sweat-glistened face, Bob
appears to be either high or dying. Or both. He's fully aware of what is happening to him,
and how he got here, but he doesn't (or can't) move. For the moment, he's just along for
the ride. And he takes us with him, down a convoluted and dope-sodden memory lane.
"I was once a shameless, full-time drug
fiend," Bob recalls in voiceover as he reminisces
about his druggie days of not so long ago, when his family circle included his loyal
partner/girlfriend Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his earnestly dense, Saint Bernard-like buddy
Rick (James Le Gross) and Rick's restive teenage girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham). All
of these terrific performers -- along with William S. Burroughs as a defrocked, zoned-out
junkie priest, James Remar as Bob's cop nemesis, Grace Zabriskie as Bob's scolding mom and
Max Perlich as a neighborhood weasel -- inhabit their roles organically, never betraying
any sense of superiority to their characters.
We first see Bob's crew in grainy, shaky 8mm home-movie memories, self-consciously goofy images of
youthful, stoned innocence. These compulsive outlaws aren't greedy career criminals;
they're benumbed rather than hardened. As they see it, they're just trying to make a
living the best way they know how. And living, for them, means forever scrambling from one
fix to the next, searching to sustain that elusive chemical high. Bob can't even wait
until he gets home after pulling a job. He shoots up in the backseat of the getaway car
and slumps against the window as little silhouetted, refrigerator-magnet images of cowboy
hats and syringes slide down the glass, like shadowy floaters gliding across the surface
of your eyeballs.
While the rest of the gang provides distraction, Bob trusts only himself to do the
hands-on work, rifling through behind-the-counter pharmacy drawers for prime pills and
injectables. He's ecstatic after a score, bragging about the street value of the loot, but
he never gets around to selling any of it because of the insatiable habits of his consumer
household. Dianne gets a sexual thrill from the drugs, but like the impotent Joe in Andy
Warhol's Trash (one of this movie's funny, dopey ancestors), Bob isn't interested. He's
already planning the next job, the next challenge. Looking for that imaginary pot of
pharmeceuticals at the end of the rainbow, Bob gets as big a kick from stealing as he does
from the illegally obtained substances themselves.
Bob and Dianne,
who have settled into their roles as old man and old lady to the childlike Rick and
Nadine, take their parental responsibilities seriously. In one hilarious living-room
family conference, the stoned "parents" give the "kids" a wacked-out
lesson in survival, solemnly explaining the oblique but somehow uncontestable reasons
behind such superstitious house rules as No Dogs and Never Put a Hat on the Bed.
There's so much going on here: Bob and Dianne, intent upon impressing Rick and Nadine
with the gravity of the matters at hand, seem to be talking themselves into believing
their own implausible explanations, recalling the tragi-comic tale of a beloved housepet
as if it were a nearly forgotten bad dream they once shared. Gullible Rick sincerely wants
to believe them, but is surprised to find himself mildly skeptical. Still, he's
good-natured enough to give Bob the benefit of any doubt. And Nadine -- like a brattly
little girl who's always spoiling illusions by asking 'Why?' -- doesn't swallow a word of
it, though she's too scared and insecure to admit it. She's tired of being Bob's
scapegoat, the source of the hex he claims is bringing them bad luck.
Needless to say,
this is not a movie about the "Just Say No" generation, although it does reveal
some of the glibness behind that specious motto. "Just Say No" may make a fine
slogan for a publicity campaign aimed at schoolchildren, but for junkies already driven by
the desperate (and inevitably doomed) need to string out a perpetual chemical high, it's
simply not a realistic option. Bob eventually decides to "Just Say No" -- but it
takes a junkie's full-blown nightmare come true (smuggling a corpse out of a motel room
during a sherriff's convention) to turn him around. Rather than face a lifetime hex, he
decides trade in his illegal habit for an authorized methadone maintainence program and a
regular job, even though he knows it means breaking up the family.
Bob's conversion isn't a triumph for sobriety, just another manifestation of his innate
integrity. For Bob, the straight life proves scarcely any different from the high life --
you just trade one form of lucidity for another, one form of numbness for another. Drugs,
he reasons (without irony), are just things people use "to relieve the pressures of
everyday life, like tying their shoelaces." The toughest thing is learning to live
with the uncertainty: "Most people don't know how they're gonna feel from one moment
to the next. But dope fiends have a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the
labels on the little bottles..."
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