Thursday, October 18, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #50 - Drugstore Cowboy (1989, dir. Gus Van Sant)

For several days after I first saw Drugstore Cowboy I was high with fantasies about being a junkie. Which is weird because on the surface it’s a bleak film about addiction: Matt Dillon plays a dude named Bob who runs a little two-couple crew that robs pharmacies across the Pacific Northwest and shoots their loot into their veins. It’s 1971, cloudy pretty much all the time, and during the first act the protagonists stumble into a bit of bad luck that gets worse and worse. But still the film is beautiful, and when it ends I want to escape back into it and live it. It’s Gus Van Sant’s second film, but his first to reach a real audience, and it showcases his style as well as anything else he’s ever made; he’s one of the best of the slow, subtle story tellers, and his cinematography is art gallery caliber. What got me jonesing after Drugstore Cowboy was how he zooms in on the whole ritual aspect of addiction, so close that at times the screen fills with nothing but the tip of a needle drawing liquid out of a spoon, or a streak of blood coiling into the chamber of a syringe, or the sizzling end of a cigarette, all of these edited together in rapid-fire succession. It’s just plain gorgeous, and seductive.
            There are also super-high/dream sequences where cows and hats and bubbles float across the screen and Matt Dillon’s face, and there are time lapses of clouds and the moon. But it’s not a pro-drug movie any more than an anti-drug one. The story is too cool and detached to take a moral stance one way or the other. Bob is a philosophical junkie with a talent for spinning far-out aphorisms like, “You can buck the system but you can't buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface,” and, “Most people don't know how they're gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.” He sees the world as a game of chance, and the druggie adventures form an allegory for an indifferent universe where good forces and bad forces rule in equal degree, where good and bad are interchangeable depending on the angle from which they’re viewed. He’s a great character, and the script and the pacing of the plot make for a contemplative viewing experience that, like the beauty of the images and the editing, leaves you wanting to come back for more.
            The acting? It’s not bad, but it’s not the movie’s strong suit. Dillon is good, but not at the level of skill he’s brought to other roles. He has moments, usually when he’s alone on screen in stoned-out reverie. But his co-star, Kelly Lynch, never seems like quite the right match for her role as an addict, and she seems to throw him off his game. The supporting roles, on the other hand, are quite well-acted, especially the character of Nadine, a young, innocent-looking girl played by Heather Graham in one of her earliest film parts. And then there’s William S. Burroughs, who appears late in the film as an aging junkie priest. He’s just great, with his weird, high-pitched, raspy voice, and his bony, hunched-over back. He brings the specter of religion into the story’s mix, and subtly pushes the story beyond the high and lows of a drug life to something that represents life itself. So maybe that’s why the movie left me craving something I’ve never even tried. It’s not the pharmaceuticals and needles I wanted, but rather that something, as Bob said, that people reach for “Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”
            - Joe Miller

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