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‘Drugstore Cowboy’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 27, 1989


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

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"Drugstore Cowboy" is about copping -- and keeping -- a dangerous buzz, whether it's morphine sulphate, crystal meth or Dilaudid. But if you think this '70s allegory about pharmacy-raiding junkies isn't for you, you must have overlooked your own habit: Those daily, frenetic things you "have to" do, that banal maintenance of your own euphoria.

But don't worry: The finger-wagging's all mine. Neither federally admonishing nor irresponsibly romantic, "Cowboy" stays high without being highhanded. This isn't Just Say No, it's Just Say Whooaa.

Director Gus Van Sant Jr., who co-adapted prison inmate and former drugstore-cowboy James Fogle's novel with Daniel Yost, mainlines you with the mercurial para-reality of junkie mania, the long and shoot of it; he pulls you into an emotionally skittery world (a greenish Nixon's Amerika) where bleary-eyed inhabitants Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, Heather Graham and Max Perlich bounce affectingly between hard-edged paranoia and childlike vulnerability.

Dillon, who with zoned-out wife Lynch and gang members Le Gros and Graham liberates prescription shelves up and down the Pacific Northwest Bonnie-and-Clyde style, has boosted his acting valency to unprecedented strength. Certainly his work in "Tex," "Rumblefish" and "The Outsiders" (as well as a forgotten, talented performance in Arthur Penn's "Targets") was loaded with watchable attitude, but it seemed to play to the cool-hoodlums' gallery.

Now, as the gang leader keeping one step ahead of dwindling drug supplies (hitting drugstores and hospitals), bad luck (no hats on beds, no dogs), in-house freakouts (the gang is always restless) and vendetta-crazed police officer James Remar, actor Dillon finds redemption -- and maturity -- right inside his leather jacket.

Van Sant and Yost (with appropriate plaudits to Fogle) cut this surreal drama with comedy whenever they can. When Dillon excoriates greenhorn Le Gros for not noticing a drugstore's open transom window, Le Gros replies "What's a transom, Bob?" And Lynch delivers an unprintably funny line about always having to drive the getaway car.

Seen-it-all novelist William S. Burroughs brings an unscripted, hard-core presence to "Tom the Priest," a frocked demon-from-the-past who once showed altar-boy Dillon something spikier than wine; and only weaselly Perlich could be the vengeful junk-nerd who wants deadly retribution. But ultimately it's Dillon who has the biggest score; he makes this stark trip a heady, hopeful one.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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