Saturday 22 February 2020

1,001 Films: "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy was Gus van Sant's breakthrough film: a study of a gang of drug addicts, led by one Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), staging a series of distraction raids around the chemists of Portland, Oregon. An immediate sense of the film's left-of-centre world can be gained from its supporting roles: the detective shaking down Hughes and his gang - the movie's embodiment of law and order - is none other than longtime screen scuzzball James Remar, while Hughes' mother - its representative of normality - is played by David Lynch favourite Grace Zabriskie. It remains very much a product of its moment: one of the flagship films in the American independent cinema that found space for such marginalised characters as these, it's able to mimic and mock the Reagan era's emphasis on all-American family values through the Dillon character's cheery cries of "Honey, I'm home" upon returning to his squalid digs and his relationship with "unruly children" (younger dopefiends) James LeGros and Heather Graham. We might also see it as a rebuke to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, which pledged zero tolerance for both narcotics and those hooked on them; Van Sant and Daniel Yost's screenplay sets up a greyer area for its characters, speaking from experience where necessary - there's a cameo from William S. Burroughs as a hip priest in a methadone clinic waiting room - and aligning itself with the junkies through POV shots and waspish inserts of, for example, the cop's squarely knotted tie.

Set that squareness against goateed anti-heroes who habitually struggle to articulate their feelings, and it's little surprise that the movie became something of a touchstone for the then-nascent grunge movement coming out of Portland and its surrounds. The downside is that this is still very much un film de Gus van Sant (or "Gus van Sant Jr." as the credits put it, for added pretension): modish and rarely more than surface-deep. As signalled by the casting of ex-model Kelly Lynch as Hughes's squeeze Dianne, these are the best-looking junkies you'll ever see on screen - throughout the first half, Graham looks as though she's been injecting nothing more toxic than the elixir of life - and their story is necessarily episodic, having to skip town whenever the leads need another fix or trouble comes down the tubes. This essential rootlessness feels more of a problem here than it did in the later Trainspotting, which used all its directorial energy to combat its characters' lethargy; van Sant is hopelessly drawn towards that lethargy, in a way that foresees his subsequent desire to bore the pants off some part of his audience (My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Last Days). A redemptive second half at least chooses life, if you can make it that far, and some of the offbeam humour - such as Dillon and Remar taking time out from their mutual antipathy to barter over golf clubs - holds up intact, but the overall effect is undermined by all that callow slouching around; good as it is, it's finally much less forceful than it really should have been.

Drugstore Cowboy is available on DVD through MGM.

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