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‘Drugstore Cowboy’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 27, 1989

 


Director:
Gus Van Sant
Cast:
Matt Dillon;
Kelly Lynch;
James Remar;
William S. Burroughs
R
Under 17 restricted


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Everything in "Drugstore Cowboy," the new film about a gang of small-time junkie thieves, is steeped in a kind of narcotic hilarity. There's a lag time built into the jokes, a holding period, that's keyed to the reactions of the characters' slowed-down responses. Watching it, you feel witness to a real-life, slow-motion farce -- farce in a world without time.

This is how the director, Gus Van Sant Jr., brings us into synch with the way his people think, the way he gets us into their straggly world of casual crime and committed drug abuse. The characters in this stunningly bold and eccentric film live pickup lives centered completely on the robberies they commit to get drugs. They hit drug stores, mostly, in the area around Portland, Ore., using strategies designed by the group's leader, Bob (Matt Dillon). Then they take the pills and vials of narcotics they've snatched and dig in, like hibernating animals, until the supply runs low again.

Bob is the head of this made-up family of losers. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), have been together since they were kids, living the same aimless, fix-oriented existence. Bob and Dianne are such old hands on the scene that they've acquired a kind of seedy, outlaw glamour. They're legendary, like Bonnie and Clyde. Their companions are a couple of very dim youngsters. Rick (James Le Gros) is a shaggy, sweet-natured dolt who never seems to know where he is or how he got there. His girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham), is a doll-like blonde with enormous, uncomprehending eyes whom he picked up during one of their heists.

That Bob is the brains of the operation is the movie's first and biggest joke. The rest of the gang looks up to him like he's a genius, and compared with them, he might well be. Bob's schemes are crude but effective. Laying them out to his colleagues, he concentrates hard, like a grade-schooler trying to stay within the lines in his coloring book.

He's even more of a kid, though, when he gets high, and Van Sant takes us inside his simple, blissful little boy dreams of toy chickens and cows. This is a perfect role for Dillon; it makes use of that trace of torpor in him. But it gives him a chance to show some of his hang-dog charisma too. The conversation in which Bob recounts the story of the horrors brought on by a lost dog is one of the year's oddest, funniest scenes.

Bob lords it over these sad pickups like a sick parody of an average middle-class father who can't help but be disappointed in the way his kids have turned out. There are rules to the world Bob operates in and his attempts to educate them -- especially when he tries to explain his superstitious system of jinxes and curses -- gives birth to a new dimension in deadpan. Their kickers have a glacial velocity. The burdens of such leadership weigh heavily on Bob. As much as he loves drugs, as much as he loves what he calls "the lifestyle," it's getting too hard to put up with the hassles of living outside the law. An endless number of interruptions disturb the easy enjoyment of their spoils. Sometimes it's David (Max Perlich), a wet-sleeved, junkie neighbor at the door, but most often it's a narcotics cop named Gentry (James Remar), who hassles and threatens them, promising to bring them down. Plus there's Dianne, who doesn't seem to understand how the responsibilities of running this crew dampen Bob's sex drive. Shoot, if the stoned life is going to be this tough, you might as well go straight.

There are scenes here as fresh as any in a long time. After the cops wreck his apartment, destroying all their possessions, Bob tries to visit his mom, played by Grace Zabriskie, who immediately sets about lowering blinds and locking doors. Even if she did bring him into the world, she wants nothing to do with this rotten kid. And there's a marvelously impudent stretch where Bob and Dianne struggle to get a corpse out of their motel room and into the trunk of their car -- smack in the middle of a sheriff's convention.

The performers make their affectlessness expressive. Perlich gives a spooky, unsettling performance as the sniveling David; he's a twisted, modern-day variation of a Dead End Kid. As Dianne, Lynch has the churlish sexiness of someone who knows she might have gotten a cushier berth for herself if she'd pushed it a little harder. And, perhaps more than anyone else, her avidity for the hard stuff comes through. She's hooked and there's no way to soften what it does to her.

Nothing in the film seems too sharply defined, especially the characters, but that's a part of its charm. Morally, the filmmakers grant their characters a lot of slack. This isn't a "Just Say No" -- at least not in the usual sense. It doesn't attempt to moralize about drug use or interpret the characters' motives. And it doesn't try to make glib sociological interpretations about why they have ended up the way they have.

Instead, it dives into the characters' dead-end world view. This is a drug movie made from the inside out, by people who understand the life. (The novel on which the screenplay was based was written by James Fogle, who is serving a 22-year-sentence in Washington state for just the sort of crimes his characters specialize in here.) The conclusion is nihilistic; it says once a junkie, always a junkie. But because the film lets the characters speak for themselves, what else would it be? Van Sant gives his material shape and an invigorating, syncopated style. It keeps coming at you in surprising, dazzling ways. It jazzes you.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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