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Drugstore Cowboy powerful look at addiction and beyond

DRUGSTORE COWBOY

Directed by Gus Van Sant.

Written by Van Savant and Daniel Yost.

With Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Remar, James Le Gros, Heather Graham and William S. Burroughs.

By ANNABELLE BOYD

GUS VAN SANT'S Drugstore Cowboy brings the world of drug addicts to the screen with an intensity and honesty not seen since Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy. The gritty scenes and often sharp dialogue portray dope fiends as society's ultimate rebels: People who have chosen against everything society stands for -- jobs, order, and security, but who still cannot overcome the fundamental human contradiction between what is desired and what is possible.

Set in Portland, Oregon, in 1971, Cowboy follows the adventures of two couples who meet the demands of their drug habits by knocking-off drug stores and hospitals. Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the crew's leader and the film's narrator. Bob's voice-overs are arrogant and defiant, and invariably contradicted by the squalor and craziness in which he lives. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch) have been shooting together since they were in high school, and have elevated drug store rip-offs to a high art. Along for the ride are Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), younger users who work for a lesser share of the take, but who reap the benefits of Bob's expertise.

The most important lesson Bob and Diane feel they can impart to Rick and Nadine, their surrogate children, is that of "the signs." A baroque, imaginative network of superstitions, "the signs" must be followed in order to ensure survival and freedom from jail. Bob quickly instructs Rick and Nadine about the dangers of dogs, black cats and the backs of mirrors. The ultimate taboo is putting a hat on a bed, which according to Bob brings, "fifteen years of bad luck, or even death." And, for a while, at least, the signs seem to work; calling a 30-day halt to operations helps Bob abort a police stake-out, and even when he gets beaten up and kicked out of town, the forced removal seems to open up unlimited opportunities for larceny and indulgence.

In developing the relationship among the four addicts, Van Sant creates a parody of the American suburban family. Bob, as head patriarch, practices a volatile brand of family politics which, while delivering dilaudid and morphine, fails to provide a solid emotional unity. Bob's duties as head of the crew cause him to neglect Dianne and she blasts him with that almost suburban lament, "You don't f--- me, and I always have to drive." Nadine, hampered by her youth and inexperience, feels unwanted in the group, and in a rebellious fervor, invokes Bob's worst superstition by throwing her hat on a bed. Driven by Bob's lack of affection, Nadine manages to steal what she considers her fair share of the take, and, consequently ODs.

It is here that the movie leaves the surreal world of drug addiction to address the deeper human impulses which force dope into bloodstreams. Bob, devastated by Nadine's death, and certain that "the signs" will be against him for the rest of his life, swears off drugs. In a bleak, powerful scene, Bob buries Nadine's body and walks out on Rick and Dianne without so much as a single word. Checking himself into a methadone clinic, Bob tries to rebuild his life. He gets a job, rents a room, drinks tea, and prays to wake up with the feeling "that something good might happen today".

Bob comes to realize that his greatest fear is the challenge brought by the next minute. As Bob notes, the best thing about being a junkie was that you always knew what to expect in the future, all you had to do was "read the labels on the bottles." Through the characters he meets in rehabilitation (most notably William Burrough's drug-hoarding priest), Bob recognizes that most junkies never stop using; it's just the drugs that change -- heroin is replaced by religion or conformity. But, Bob, marked by "the signs" and the refusal of Dianne to join him in the straight life, can't find his new drug, his new place in the world. And, as the movie ends, it becomes apparent that, no matter how hard he tries, Bob simply cannot outrace "the signs".

Drugstore Cowboy is a powerful, thought-evoking film, and Van Sant's plot and philosophy culminate in Matt Dillon, who gives the performance of his career. Dillon brings grace and grit to every line, and a sullen nobility to even Bob's most despicable moments. His Bob Hughes is painfully alive, and not easy to forget. Kelly Lynch also gives a first-rate performance as Dianne, Bob's tougher-than-nails, Barbie Doll wife. Van Sant's direction is strong, and without glamourizing the drug world, he communicates both the thrill and the price of drug addition. Perhaps the movie's only major flaw is that Bob's transition into the straight world happens too fast, leaving the viewer a bit confused at Bob's real motivations. However, by the film's end, all is made beautifully, tragically clear.