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Drugstore Cowboy

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A
Video/Audio/Extras: B-/B-/F

Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant and Daniel Yost
Based on the book by: James Fogle
Produced by: Karen Murphy and Nick Wechsler
Starring: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham, Eric Hull, Max Perlich
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

'I was once a shameless drug fiend' a drowsy Matt Dillon tells us in voiceover as he is wheeled into an ambulance, lights flashing furiously. Sweat pours down his forehead and his skin is pale and sickly looking. Nevertheless he smiles at the camera slowly, a finale gesture of defiance in the face of possible death. This is Bob the reckless, insane but fatally human narrator of Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.

I have been accused in the past of having a rampant Van Sant bias and this is something I'm finding increasingly hard to deny. What did I think of Elephant? Well, I find it hard to call it anything but a masterpiece. Last Days? Genius. Gerry? A philosophical work of art. My Own Private Idaho? The best American film of the last few decades. And now, after seeing Drugstore Cowboy the case for Joe Earp vs. the rest of the world when it comes to the possibility of a Gus Van Sant bias is looking exceedingly grim.

Because Drugstore Cowboy is, unfortunately enough, another tour de force for Van Sant. A pure, emotional journey, the film follows Bob and his crew as they knock off drugstore after drugstore. Stealing dope, methadone and basically whatever they can get their hands on. But instead of turning this simple plot into a boring morality tale about the terrors of narcotics, Van Sant tells it as it is. There's not melodrama here, just plain old fashioned movie making.

However it must be said that the film does play out more like a character study than anything else. The screenplay's plotless nature may annoy some, but Van Sant's interesting decision not to complicate a simple plot is surprisingly original. And who could hate a character study with characters as interesting as this? Bob and his crew are children desperately pretending to be adults. The scene in which the four addicts pour over tiny bottles of narcotics like children at Halloween are both amusing and affecting. Bob's own preoccupations with myths and superstitions hide a much deeper flaw. The tired, flawed addict has such a disorganized life he has to find someway to keep everything in line and stupid rules and myths are the only thing that hold his pitiful existence together. His crew are no different. The four addicts operate as a kind of dysfunctional family, with Bob and his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) looking over their immature 'children' Nadine (Heather Graham) and Ricky. The four criminals desperately try to adopt a pretence of normality as they knock off drugstore after drugstore, fulfilling their insatiable appetite for methadone, morphine, whatever. Its not the fix that matters, it's the rush that follows it that Bob and his crew so desperately seek.

But as our narrator tells us, the characters in the film are 'fighting a losing battle and playing it to the upmost.' At their core, these addicts are flawed and childlike. Scenes depicting the four of them beaten and bruised, abused by cops and other drug addicts are genuinely affecting. As much as Bob wants to be normal, his 'family' is driven much more by the desire for a good fig than by love or empathy. And sure enough, it's not long before the whole situation comes crashing around the sad, empty addicts.

Drugstore Cowboy is in essence an operatic tragedy on a minor scale. Bob's fall from grace is not mocked or condoned. Instead Van Sant presents us with the facts and leaves the audience to do the rest. The film's tragic end is so successful in part thanks to the unsentimental approach the director takes. The script is perfectly structured. By beginning at the end as it were, Van Sant blesses the audience with hindsight. Bob's decision to go straight is doomed from the start, as the audience well knows. As underrated as he is, Van Sant's stylistics have often been imitated, most notably by Darren Aaronofsky whose critically lauded Requiem for a Dream similarly dissected a relationship torn between drugs and love. However Van Sant is more talented than Aaronofsky could ever hope to be. Instead of abusing the viewer visually with immature jump cuts and just plain laughable sound effects, Van Sant instead chooses to slow down his acing considerably.

However the film is not entirely perfect. An early score from Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthaal is more than a bit tacky and both Kelly Lunch and Matt Dillon are a touch stiff, alienating the viewer considerably in a few of the scenes. Similarly, real life drug addict/author William Burroughs is close to incoherent, thanks no doubt to years of pill popping himself. This is a great shame, especially considering that his character, Tom, is both amusing and affecting. He is also an important character, in the sense that he is as close to a father figure as Bob will ever get. The real emotion the two feel for each other suggests that maybe in this world of alienation and hate, two junkies really can love each other. Its unsurprising in a way that the openly gay Van Sant manages to depict real love between two men, but nevertheless as stated above, Burroughs' poor delivery really does ruin some of the more powerful scenes.

The extras on the DVD I watched were pretty poor. Van Sant is almost as reclusive as his idol Stanley Kubrick and interviews with the man himself are rare. All that was included in the package I saw was a boring trailer and an animated menu (not that that's even really worth mentioning). Nevertheless, Drugstore Cowboy is a near perfect film. But don't take the word of 'a shameless Van Sant fiend.' Go out and see Drugstore Cowboy yourself.

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