Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Backfilling: "Drugstore Cowboy"
“It’s hard being a dope fiend,” explains Bob (Matt Dillon) in the opening voice-over of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, “and it’s even harder running a crew.” Bob’s crew keeps their goals modest—they knock over drugstores, and they’re only looking for the pharms. Sometimes they break in at night, like common thieves; sometimes it’s in broad daylight, with the crew staging a distraction while Bob gets behind the counter and grabs whatever he can get. It’s not a glamorous life. They’re too busy jonesing to notice.
Drugstore Cowboy was Van Sant’s big breakthrough film, and we’re already seeing some of his distinctive touches: a narrative playfulness, matter-of-fact use of place and period (the film takes place in the Pacific Northwest, circa 1971), spare but effective voice-over narration, home movies as scene-setting device. Most importantly, he burrows right into their seamy, grimy world—without judging or condescending. He lives in there with them, at ground level, staying up those long days and nights, lunging for the next fix, indulging in their desperation, their disconnection, their gallows humor, capturing the brisling energy of their “heists.”
Dillon, for whom the picture was something of a comeback, is stellar, and the supporting cast (mostly filled with actors who would become 90s indie stalwarts, like James LeGros, Heather Graham, and Max Perlich) is rock solid. Of particular note is William S. Burroughs as Tom the Priest, taking what could have been a piece of stunt casting and giving it a wonderfully evocative quality, what with his distinctive persona and rolling, purring voice. About the only element that doesn’t play is the score (by the usually reliable Elliot Goldenthal), which is frequently too mannered and aggressive.
Drugstore Cowboy is kind of all over the place, but it works. A little more focus might have made for a stronger narrative, but it would also have depleted its grungy charm. And for the moment in cinema at which it arrived (1989, right in the midst of the shiny Simpson-Bruckheimer era), it must have been a fucking revelation.
"Drugstore Cowboy" is available on DVD.