Casting teen dream Matt Dillon as a junkie going straight sounds like one of those noxious notions dreamed up by a politician for yet another Just Say No campaign. Admirable causes usually make for deadly moviemaking. The film's beginning suggests this is no exception. Dillon's Bob Hughes, shot by a kid pusher, is near death. Bob narrates the story in a long flashback, waxing poetic about his days of robbing drugstores for a fix. Hearing Dillon's thick tongue trip over such twisters as "the rosy hue of unlimited success" filled me with dread. Later, director Gus Van Sant, who did the fine independent film Mala Noche, attempts to visualize a drug-induced fantasy by showing falling snowflakes and flying hats.
By a sheer act of will I stayed in my seat. I'm glad I did. Drugstore Cowboy improves. Not much, but in provocative ways. Van Sant gets at something most addict movies avoid: the very real attraction of drugs. For Bob, his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), their pal Rick (James Le Gros) and Rick's teen girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham), the needle offers an escape from a dead-end existence. The complex how-tos of stealing dope give Bob and his crew an exhilarating sense of purpose. Set in Oregon in the early Seventies, the script, by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, has been adapted from an unpublished novel by convict James Fogle.
When Nadine overdoses, Bob decides to withdraw from a world his wife won't leave. Dillon makes his reformation believable by not playing it righteously. You can feel his ache for the drug life. For once a movie, even one that lurches and stumbles, sees the war on drugs honestly by recognizing the enemy's power and allure. Let's hope it's a trend.