|UK Release Date||20th October 1989|
|Director||Gus van Sant|
|Starring||Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch|
|Reviewed||6th September 2017|
Matt Dillon was god, the early 80s his Valhalla. A denim deity who ruled the brat pack with a leather fist and a blood red bandana, Francis Ford Coppola’s dangerous teen idol, Dally in The Outsiders and Rusty James in Rumble Fish. Dillon was a restless, edgy combination of Brando, Dean and Elvis rolled into one fuck off Irish American fireball that was prettier than Cruise and a better actor than Penn.
Back in 1989 and not the sadass back to 89 rave nights for wannabes who were never there in the first place; Dillon was slipping back down to Earth. He needed a hit as much as his junkie character Bob in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and that movie did the trick. Subverting his teenage rebel shtick Dillon turned his firebrand hothead into an introspective, superstitious hophead.
Bob leads a family of dope-fiends in a never-ending quest to stay high under the battleship grey skies of Portland, Oregon in the 1970s. “It’s hard being a dope-fiend and even harder running a crew” Bob’s zoned out narration tells us. Oxymorphone, methamphetamine, morphine, cocaine, and dilaudid go up the nose or through the vein of his wife Dianne, “I loved her, and she loved dope. So we made a good couple,” his “muscle” Rick and Rick’s underage squeeze Nadine.
Like Get Carter also set in 1971, Drugstore Cowboy deals with the fallout of the 60s counter culture. Staying fucked up on drugs is a military operation and Bob is the junkie general. His elaborate plans wouldn’t be out of place in an Alistair MacLean novel. Better yet he’s leading a chemically altered superhero team; in an early drugstore heist a copy of The Fantastic Four is visible in the magazine rack. Bob then is a whacked out Reed Richards with Dianne his nymphomaniac Human Torch, Nick the Thing and Nadine the Invisible Girl everyone ignores.
Every superhero needs a super villain and the flaky foursome’s nemesis is Vice Cop Gentry. His dawn raids are carried out with a familiarity that strangely doesn’t breed contempt. Bob convinces Gentry not to snap all his golf clubs, “Break two more and then leave the clubs alone.” Presumably Gentry wants to encourage Bob’s hobby if it keeps him off the dope. Bob on the other hand is more practical about their symbiotic relationship, “I love cops. If there were no hot shit cops like Gentry around, the competition would be so heavy there’d be nothing left to steal.”
Vant Sant’s movie neither demonizes or glamorises drugs literally showing the highs and the lows: a dreamy montage of spoons, cows, hats and houses spinning like an MGM twister or the Domestos blue skin of an overdose victim. As syringes plunge and spoons burn fireworks whiz and pop unseen in Bob’s drug conscious. He applauds himself with canned laughter on the success of his latest scam as effervescent bubbles fizz up the screen of his own television show-the pitiful interference of his mind. This experimental style would later be stripped bare in Van Sant’s Death Trilogy after his mainstream success with Good Will Hunting.
Drugstore Cowboy dares to suggest that people start taking drugs because they enjoy them. “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,” Bob tells us. Perhaps the random emotions of the straight life appeal to him, but the pragmatist in Bob realises that the perpetual high can only end one way, “We played a game you couldn’t win…to the utmost.”
So Bob breaks up his family in his single-minded pursuit of sobriety after a close run thing with a corpse and a motel full of sheriffs. Reluctantly ditching Dianne along the way to her true love drugs, Bob enrols onto a methadone programme, gets a job in a factory and pays the rent. He’s content to be square if it keeps his bad luck from catching up with him. In a touchingly tragic scene Dianne briefly reappears to Bob, a pharmaceutical siren whose song falls on deaf ears. When she swaggers off into the darkness we can guess the outcome of Dianne’s game.
But the outcome of Bob’s game is open for interpretation as he lies face up on a gurney reciting his life story. As he is whisked away to the hospital we don’t know if he’ll live or die but we know one thing for certain; Matt Dillon was still god and Van Sant was the man responsible.