Gus Van Sant:"Drugstore Cowboy" (1989)

Like the best outlaw movies (Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider), director Gus Van Sant's breakthrough sophomore film seeks neither to legitimate the junkie's life nor to moralize against it. The film avoids glib portrayals of its "cowboys" as fun-loving free-spirits; indeed, they're anything but free. Though it paints a corrosive picture of drug abuse, Cowboy also shows the itinerant abusers as real people and not caricatured sociopaths. Van Sant's and Daniel Yost's adaptation of the unpublished memoir of James Fogle -- who served a 22-year sentence for similar crimes -- no doubt adds to the unique realism of the film. Matt Dillon's career was revitalized by his laconic, charismatic, and sad performance as the gang's leader, and the young Heather Graham also garnered notice for her memorable performance as the junkie clan's newest inductee. Beat author William S. Burroughs even turns up for a particularly disturbing cameo. Van Sant presents the group as a monumentally dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless: They care about each other, and we grow to care about them. Drugstore Cowboy is a rare film that takes on a potentially loaded topic and addresses it with originality, sentiment, and real power.


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