Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy is an excellent drug movie, an off-beat ride through early 70s junkie culture in Portland, Oregon. It's a cool, sparky film that never romanticises the drug habits, just the lifestyle on the road as the main characters roam from town to town looking for the next score. It's a really funny film but never flippant. Sure they have a ball when times are good, but comeuppances are handed out on the flipside.

Based on an autobiographical novel by James Fogle and directed by Gus Van Sant, the film follows Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) and his gang of dope fiends as they drive around Portland relieving drugstores of their pharmaceuticals for personal use. Tagging along with Bob is his girlfriend Diane, his best friend Rick and Rick's girlfriend Nadine. Dillon is at his charismatic and swaggering best as the leader of the gang, and Kelly Lynch (whatever happened to...?) is a forceful and sexy presence as Diane. A young Heather Graham plays the naive Nadine, bottom of the food chain and forever trying to climb up the ladder. Hot on their tail is James Remar as the frustrated and uptight Detective Gentry, fixated with catching Bob but always one step behind the game.

The drug taking scenes are graphic. Close ups of pills, matches, needles, spoons, sponges and blood coursing through cylinders fill the screen and it makes you wince slightly. You can see where movies such as Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting learnt a few tips. The hallucinogenics themselves are played down though. Dillon stares into the void, starry-eyed as cows, trees, bicycles and hats float across his vision and the grey American skyline. It's a stark and brilliant affect.

Drugstore Cowboy isn't all hits and fixes though. There's a lot of comedy in the film as well as a hell of a lot of style. In fact the film predicted many of the 70s slacker fashions that filtered through 90s culture - leather jackets, flares, big collars, sheepskin. Even the cops look cool. Van Sant is a Portland native and alternative youth culture crops up a lot in his movies (Elephant, Paranoid Park, even the sometimes painful Good Will Hunting) whereas the grungy fashions from Drugstore Cowboy were carried through to his next movie My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant also makes films about outsiders and lowlife who choose to live that way and Bob is just that. As he says "we played a game we new we could never win, and we played it to the up most."

William S Burroughs, beat hero writer, makes a cameo appearance as a hooked reverend who Dillon encounters in a halfway house and he also acts as a spiritual godfather to the movie. A notorious drug taker himself his presence hangs large in the film and he speaks as the bitter voice of a doomed generation of junkies in a rant near the end of the movie. Look out also for character actor Max Perlich typecast forever as the speedy, insecure ratty bloke (he plays the same role in Rush and Blow).

The film made Dillon as an actor and more than just brat pack with a quiff, although his choice of roles has sometimes been a problem (Herbie: Fully Loaded anyone?). Van Sant has had a brilliantly varied career as an underground left-field filmmaker who can make good films in Hollywood as well as watchable art house flicks. And Drugstore Cowboy is a watchable and entertaining movie, ideal for the wee hours of the morn. Just be careful where you put that hat...