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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ Shows Lows in Trying to Reach Ultimate High

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Drugstore Cowboy” (at the Nuart), an electrifying movie without one misstep or one conventional moment, makes us voyeurs in the world of 1970s “dope fiends,” as junkie Matt Dillon likes to call them.

Because it’s a pretty limited world, airless and crushingly dumb, in which the impulse is simply to move from high to high, the wonder is that a movie this alert, this razor-funny and this compulsively watchable can be made about it without betraying its blitzed-out characters. Somehow, in only his second feature, director and co-writer Gus Van Sant has managed it.

From his actors, especially Matt Dillon, Van Sant has gotten hauntingly beautiful performances. There is street poetry and genuine revelation in Dillon’s first-person narration as Bob, the acknowledged leader of this dopey little band, expert at boosting any kind of pharmaceutical from any unwary drugstore in Portland, Ore.

This flaky foursome includes Bob’s wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch, in a performance that eradicates all memory of movies like “Cocktail” or “Roadhouse”); Rick (James Le Gros), the dim-bulb muscle of the group, and Rick’s teen-age girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham), the newcomer, whose specialty is faking seizures in the drugstores that divert attention from Bob’s practiced lunge behind the pharmacist’s counter, clearing out bins as he moves.

Bizarrely, although they gloat over its street value, the gang rarely sells its loot; it goes straight into keeping them all muzzily high--all the time. As a vision from inside a junkie’s mind, is there anything about the movie to make this drug-bound existence even remotely appealing? Hardly. It seems like the most vacant, frightful life imaginable, full of intricate, obsessive schemes that fade with the first rays of light, as the dosage wears off.

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There’s a drug-crossed love story here too, as Bob and Dianne can’t seem to get their highs in sync. The same fix that arouses her makes lovemaking the last thing on his mind. “Bob’s like a rabbit,” Dianne muses, as he hits a hospital for bigger drug stakes. “In and out in no time with no fuss.” Then in a measured afterthought she adds, “That goes for more than hospitals.” It might be funny, except for the poignancy of Lynch’s and Dillon’s performances, giving their situation a hell-on-Earth irony.

But when it wants to be, “Drugstore Cowboy” is laconically comic, humor that comes from a mix of precise language and the slow-mo reaction time of people moving under drugs. Try watching Bob, one of the world’s masters of arcane superstition, laying out a few ground rules about the taking off of hexes, when his mouth, his eyes and his brain aren’t exactly lined up in order.

Other humor is decidedly macabre, particularly when the gang’s highway motel becomes host to a sheriff’s convention--at the same time the dopers must dispose of a gradually stiffening, overdosed corpse. “Why couldn’t it have been a Tupperware convention,” Bob rages, fighting down waves of paranoiac hysteria.

Brackishly awful though the scene is, it’s the turning point for Bob, who doesn’t make promises to God lightly. You know, the just-get-me-out-of-this-and-I’ll-go-straight pledge? His dead-earnestness about his pact may be another thing that separates Bob from the rest of us.

It’s a move he knows will doom his marriage, because Dianne has no desire to let go of her highs. Nevertheless, Bob goes into a methadone program and the straight world of factory work and sleazy rooming houses. We hold our breaths that he can make it. Writer and guru William S. Burroughs enters here as a defrocked priest and serious addict who had led more than one altar boy, Bob included, into the world of drugs.

As the two cross paths again, Burroughs’ presence, his sly-fox delivery as he smacks his lips over 160 milligrams of Dilaudid, have a dry, unassailable authenticity. It’s like having W. C. Fields run a practiced eye over your liquor cabinet, separating the vintage stuff from the hooch.

The picture keeps its own authenticity all the way down the line, from the dreadfully reminiscent ‘70s clothes by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor to the period-perfect hair insisted upon by Gina Monaci, to production designer David Brisbin’s eye for tacky Portland motel rooms, rooming houses and suburban cracker-boxes. Cameraman Robert Yeoman has a post-modernist’s eye and a combat photographer’s heart, and Curtiss Clayton’s editing is swift and to the point. Among a faultless cast, Max Perlich’s weaselly young David is disturbingly memorable.

In the way that “Straight Time’s” screenplay, based on experiences by convicted thief Eddie Bunker, was utterly believable, “Drugstore Cowboy’s” script gets its insider’s tone from a writer who knows the territory. (It is MPAA-rated R for just that.)

In San Quentin and Soledad for pharmaceutical robberies in the 1970s, James Fogle wrote a novel that came to the attention of Oregon magazine writer Dan Yost. Corresponding with Fogle, Yost was struck by his storytelling abilities and offered to help edit it; after his release, Fogle submitted his novel to 30 publishers. It was rejected, and Fogle next became involved in another series of drugstore thefts that earned him a 22-year term in the Walla Walla, Wash., prison.

A copy of the novel stayed with Yost, however, and when Van Sant--whose electrifying black-and-white first feature, “Mala Noche,” won the Los Angeles Film Critics’ prize as the best independent feature of 1987--was looking for a subject for his second film, he read it. The screenplay credit is to Van Sant and Yost.

Fogle is now 52, and when he finishes his current sentence he goes to a Wisconsin state prison for additional time on a drugstore robbery there. Statistics like this do not in any way heighten the allure of the drug life.

‘DRUGSTORE COWBOY’

An Avenue Pictures presentation. Producers Nick Wechsler, Karen Murphy. Executive producer Cary Brokaw. Director Gus Van Sant. Screenplay Van Sant, Dan Yost, based on the novel by James Fogle. Camera Robert Yeoman. Editor Curtiss Clayton. Production designer David Brisbin. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Elliott Goldenthal. With Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Remar, James Le Gros, Heather Graham, Max Perlich, Beah Richards, Grace Zabriskie, William S. Burroughs.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

BACKGROUND “Drugstore Cowboy” is based on a novel by James Fogle, who wrote it while in San Quentin and Soledad for committing pharmaceutical robberies in the 1970s. Now 52, he currently is in prison at Walla Walla, Wash.


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