Gus Van Sant is one of those dudes who I feel a little guilty about not having seen enough of his work. I’ve seen Good Will Hunting, but who hasn’t? I think I saw To Die For back in the day when it came out. I definitely saw Gerry, the one where Casey Affleck and Matt Damon wander aimlessly the desert for a couple of hours. And earlier this year, I saw his latest Promised Land, but I didn’t even know this one was a Van Sant joint until his name popped up in the credits. So what better place to start filling my Van Sant holes than back where it all started, his feature film debut, 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy.
A bit of a comeback for early 80s dreamboat Matt Dillon, he plays Bob, a junkie who supports his habit by robbing pharmacies. He does this with the help of his junkie wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his junkie best friend Rick (James Le Gros) and junkie wannabe Nadine (a crazy young Heather Graham).
Based on the autobiography of author James Fogle, he ransacks his native Portland until local cop Gentry, played by James Remar, finally has enough of their bullshit and tries to take them down. Always a little too smart for his own good, Bob uncovers Gentry’s latest sting and a prank leads to a cop being shot, though not killed. On the lam while heat over the shot cop dies down, things steadily decline until one tragedy too many makes Bob finally face the reality of his addiction.
Despite that depressing rundown, Drugstore Cowboy is one of those movies that manages to find some moments of genuine hilarity amongst the darkness. And the fact that you might even feel a little guilty after laughing at some of these horrible situations makes those jokes even better.
From a film making and story telling perspective, Drugstore Cowboy is a pretty confident movie, especially for a director’s first effort. Van Sant had made a few shorts and done plenty of commercial work before this, but even so, to think that this his is first feature and that he managed to reign in an at times rambling story and cast, is all the more impressive.
It also predicts the kind of career he’s had since. While he has bounced back and forth between the art house, quiet minimalism of films like Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, to the blatant heart string and emotion pullers like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forester, to whatever it was he was trying to achieve with his remake of Psycho, Drugstore Cowboy impressively and seamlessly combines lot of those sensibilities, all in one movie.
You can watch it to see Matt Dillon show of some of his often underused acting chops. You can watch it see a serious, but never preachy depiction of the harms of addiction. You can watch it get into the Van Sant groove. There are all sorts of reasons to watch Drugstore Cowboy, so I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to it.