Jun 11, 2014
Rather ironically, aside from his horrendous heeb-homo-martyrizing celluloid hagiography Milk (2008), queer auteur Gus Van Sant (Mala Noche, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)—a man famous for, among other things, being America’s first openly gay Hollywood filmmaker—has received his greatest success from quasi-sentimental fag-free films like Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), with Drugstore Cowboy being the director’s first major critical success. I would also argue that Drugstore Cowboy is the auteur’s greatest non-gay film, as a rather quirky cult flick about the road to nowhere that is the Pacific Northwest's junky degeneracy. A sort of junky Rebel Without a Cause updated for the late-1980s (but set in the early 1970s) that is more about lowlife dark humor than inarticulate suburban teen angst, the film is based on the then-unpublished autobiography of career criminal James Fogle, who was incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary at the time of the release of the strangely charming cinematic work that would immortalize his loser life (he died in prison in 2012 at the age of 75 after being arrested in 2011 for robbing a Seattle pharmacy). Indeed, despite featuring junky literary outlaw William S. Burroughs as an old school junky priest named ‘Tom the Priest’ (the character is a reference to the Burroughs short story “The Priest They Called Him,” which is featured in the 1973 short story collection Exterminator!) and a charismatic, if not morally retarded and even borderline psychopathic, pharmacy-robbing dope fiend as the protagonist (star Matt Dillion once confessed that playing the role of a junky led him to eventually breaking down and crying), Drugstore Cowboy is, at least in my opinion, one of the greatest unintentionally anti-drug films ever made, though auteur Van Sant once admitted regarding the work: “It’s probably true that the movie will make a junkie want to go out and take drugs, but this isn’t a political statement about drugs. I guess I do expect some sort of backlash.” A tastelessly charming work of deadbeat deadpan comedy featuring druggy degenerate untermenschen with cool shades and leather jackets who think they are too good for heroin so they ritualistically steal “the best goddamn pharmaceutical dope money can buy” (aka Dilaudid), Van Sant’s film proves that the life of a junky is about as appealing as an STD because, as Burroughs once noted, “Junk is the ideal product... the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.” Indeed, while Drugstore Cowboy features no superficial anti-drug sermons, I would be lying if I did not admit that the film made me want to get on a strict weightlifting regiment and organic diet. A sort of neo-Beat film for a deadbeat generation that is far too illiterate, lazy, and uncultivated to devour the Burroughs mythos, Drugstore Cowboy ultimately makes Bonnie and Clyde (1967) seem like a sweet and sentimental work of celluloid nostalgia about the good old days when criminals had somewhat reasonable reasons for committing robberies and inciting terror in the general public.
The setting is Portland, Oregon 1971 and alpha-junky Bob (Matt Dillon) has just been shot and like William Holden’s character from Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), he is going to spend 100 minutes or so explaining to the viewer how he got into such a precarious situation. Maybe it’s the dope, but Bob is a strangely superstitious individual who has an unwavering fear of bad omens and being haunted by hexes and thus these irrational fears guide most of his major decisions in life. As Bob explains, “It’s hard being a dope fiend. And it’s even harder running a crew” and indeed, with his loser gang of dumb ass dope fiends, he has a lot of things to worry about, especially when it comes to finding his next big fix. Bob’s sidekick and “muscle” is a major moron named Rick (James Le Gros) who, aside from being borderline retarded, does whatever his master tells him to do, including insulting his pretty yet rather annoying pixie-like girlfriend. While Bob’s nymphomaniac wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) is a cool chick who loves stealing dope like just one of the guys, Rick’s girlfriend young Nadine (Heather Graham)—a former counter girl that they picked up during one of their robberies—is somewhat of an annoying bitch that causes most of the strife among the group, as she cannot stand being the weakest link and she especially cannot stand not being the center of attention. While Bob loves the opium-addled outlaw life, he has to admit at the beginning of the film that, “… deep down, I knew we could never win. We played a game we couldn’t win…to the utmost.” In one of their more ambitious robbery attempts (the first one depicted in the film), Nadine pretends to have a seizure in the middle of a busy pharmacy so as to distract the pharmacist so that Bob can go behind the counter and rob the place of premium grade legal dope. Needless to say, Bob cannot wait to get home to shoot-up, so he injects himself with his latest narcotic steal while riding in the getaway car. While Bob's road-to-nowhere life is more or less a real-life nightmare where he is only seconds away from another lengthy prison stay, everything seems and feels perfect when he is high on opiates, as if he has reached nirvana via injection.
Upon arriving home, Bob and his crew are visited by a spastic little philistine turd boy named David (played by Max Perlich, who would later depict a wacky degenerate who pimps out a chick with Down syndrome in Van Sant’s friend Harmony Korine’s 1997 debut feature Gummo), who trades the gang some crystal meth for some dope. While Bob treats David like the shady little scumbag dullard that he is, little does the career criminal realize that the little mensch will have his revenge in the end. That night, Bob’s house is raided by a goofy golf-loving cop named Gentry (James Remar) and his gestapo-like policemen, who wreck the junky’s humble abode. Unlike most junkies, Bob has no hard feelings when it comes to Gentry and cops in general, remarking, “Man, 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.” Due to a prank-gone-wrong in regard to the cops and a large pissed-off redneck with a shotgun, the crew decides to head out of town, shipping their loads of drugs separately by bus (which they pick up from time to time, so as to not suffer withdraw), as they cannot risk being busted while driving across the Pacific Northwest. Also, after Nadine makes the major mistake of mentioning dogs (once, Bob and Dianne went to jail after their poor pup ‘Panda,’ who was later euthanized by the police, led the cops back to their home), Bob and Diane become convinced they have been given a 30-day hex and naturally they want to “outrun” it by traveling. Unfortunately, after a successful robbery that earns the crew $8,400 worth of Dilaudid (enough dope to last the crew three weeks), Nadine goes and decides to overdose on junk, which she more or less threatened to do only hours before, stating to her boyfriend Rick, “You’re just goin’ out with them tonight. When you come back, I’ll show all of you.” When Bob sees Nadine’s pretty little pale corpse, he calls her a “conniving little bitch” and berates her boyfriend Rick by stating, “She beat you. Your own woman beat you out of your cut on a score. She got what she deserves.” Of course, being a dimwitted cuckold of sorts, Rick does nothing to defend his postmortem girlfriend's honor aside from nonsensically punching a hole in the wall in what can only be described as impotent rage.
Needless to say, after Nadine’s death, among various other problems (a sheriffs' convention has come to town), Bob decides to “go straight” and get on a 21-step methadone program, but Diane and Rick are not interested in the plan, so the lapsed opium-addled outlaw heads back to Portland all by his lonesome and gets a job working in a metal factory. Bob also moves into Portland's sorry answer to the Beat Hotel and starts hanging out with an elderly junky guru named ‘Tom the Priest’ (William S. Burroughs), who reminisces over the good old days when one could get free morphine in prison by merely sticking their arm out of the bars of their jail cell and having a jail guard inject them with some good old school smack. When Diane randomly comes to visit Bob, she gives her husband a large brown paper bag full of junk, but she also gives him the bad, if not inevitable, news that she is now dating his best friend Rick. Though Bob tries to get in her panties one last time, Diane states, “I might have been a lot of things, but I never was a tramp” and he says to her, “I wish I could win you back.” Done with dope, Bob gives the brown paper bag full of assorted opiates to Tom the Priest, who is so overjoyed by the rather thoughtful gift that he thanks his young ex-con comrade by stating, “God bless you my son…may you go to heaven.” Not long after committing his act of kindness, Bob is beaten and shot by dullard boy David and his equally dumb sidekick, who refuses to believe that the ex-junky no longer has the dope on him that they were planning to rob. Indeed, in the end, Bob seemed to be right about that 30-day hex..
Undoubtedly, the greatest and most thoughtful lines featured in Drugstore Cowboy are delivered with a sort of autistic American Anglo-Saxon elegance by junky sage William S. Burroughs (whose lines were apparently written by his bibliographer/literary executor James Grauerholz), who offers the following all-too-true insight during the film: “Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus. I’m an old man and I may not live to see a final solution of the drug problem.” Indeed, drug war or not, junkies are always going to shoot junk no matter what, or as antihero Bob soundly states to an old negress: “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to 'em for years but sooner or later they're gonna get a hold of something. Maybe it's not dope. Maybe it's booze, maybe it's glue, maybe it's gasoline. Maybe it's a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.” Indeed, more than anything, Drugstore Cowboy manages to, somewhat unwittingly, make a mockery of the post-WWII American rebel, as Matt Dillion’s character, who is more or less sexually impotent (his nympho girlfriend always tries to screw him, but he always disappoints her, as he is more in love with dope), seems like a patently pathetic parody of Marlon Brando's iconic character in The Wild One (1953) and countless other teen outlaw films. Indeed, Van Sant’s film demystifies the American screen rebel yet, somewhat paradoxically, creates a new sort of nihilistic untermensch rebel whose only charm is his lack of charm and whose only real enemy is himself, thus acting as a sort of anti-rebel who signifies the death of the whole film subgenre. Unquestionably, My Own Private Idaho (1991)—a work where the director utilized Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ technique in regard to the script—is Van Sant’s magnum opus, with Drugstore Cowboy being like the film's sub-literate and too-cool-for-school junky older brother. Indeed, unlike Alison Maclean's similarly-themed work Jesus' Son (1999) and Hebraic pseudo-arthouse hack Darren Aronofsky's grotesquely moronic and would-be-romantic piece of counterfeit celluloid art Requiem for a Dream (2000), Van Sant's film demonstrates that there is no hope for the young and hopeless, especially in regard to junky ex-cons, so you might as well let them have their fun until they end up dropping dead in some lonely vomit-covered gutter.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 3:43 AM
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