Matt Dillon's been all over the board over the years, from his roots as a rough and pretty teen with a James Dean vibe to later comic character roles in films like Singles, The Flamingo Kid and Mr. Wonderful. And somewhere in between, he delivered an unforgettable performance as the Portland junkie and small-time drug heist leader Bob Hughes in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, based on the novel by James Fogle. The role is a mixture of humor and horror that reveals a man both likable and despicable, etching out an intimate picture of how addiction overtakes Bob's dealings with the world.
It was only Van Sant's second film, made long before such later critical winners as Good Will Hunting and Milk, and it was crafted with an indie heartbeat -- offbeat, dreamy and ironic -- set aglow by the beautiful cinematography of Robert Yeoman. (Yeoman went on to work on several films with director Wes Anderson.) In it, Dillon's Bob Hughes narrates his way through the lingo and vagaries of junkie life, as he and his good-looking gang -- leggy Kelly Lynch as his wife Dianne, James Le Gros as his clueless henchman Rick and a painfully beautiful Heather Graham as Rick's underage girlfriend Nadine -- knock over pharmacies looking for dilaudid and morphine, living from score to score in hotel rooms and crash pads, and always dodging the law.
Dillon's performance takes in Bob's every tic and quirk, including a superstitious streak that gets in the way of the symbiotic quartet's day-to-day business of getting high.
It's the uber-serious "Hat on the Bed Hex," though, that shifts everything around after Nadine ODs and Bob, Dianne and Rick must dispose of the body. Van Sant treats the whole incident with an icy straight face, and Bob's ultimate reaction to the hard reality of Nadine's death is a kind of remorse.
He decides to leave the life behind and clean up in a methadone program; along the way, he runs into a strung-out former priest played in chilling verité by William S. Burroughs.
In spite of his good intentions, things aren't easy for Bob, and Drugstore Cowboy ends where it begins, with a lot of unanswered questions.
Susan Froyd, in another life, toiled for a few years in some of Denver's most beloved and belated repertory cinemas. She has also seen a lot of movies over a lot of years. In this weekly series, she'll recommend forgotten films, classics, cult favorites and other dusty reels of celluloid from the past. You might like it.