Drugstore Cowboy

(USA 1989)

“You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive.”

— Dianne Hughes

“If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you’ll never see me again. I’m gone.”

“Show time!”

“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 ahold 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.”

— Bob Hughes

“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.”

— Fr. Murphy

I love everything about Drugstore Cowboy, the first film I ever saw by director Gus Van Sant. It’s the one that I view as his gold standard even after nearly 30 years. Funny, touching, and insightful in ways that have to be seen, it speaks to me. It probably always will. It’s a rare film that has it all: flawlessly executed from start to finish, it’s totally absorbing and entertaining yet still makes its points in a way that hits hard even after seeing it dozens of times.

Bad Bobby Hughes (Matt Dillon) — or just “Bob” — is the first one to tell you he’s a junkie. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), lead a small nomadic “crew” that consists of Rick (James LeGros) and his young girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham). The four of them spend their days getting high and devising elaborate — and amusing — schemes to rob drugs from pharmacies and hospitals. Then they go out and execute their mission.

Once they’ve made a score, they do the drugs they like, sell the ones they don’t, hang out doing little more than watching TV, and move onto another neighborhood somewhere else in Portland, Oregon, when they’ve either run out or overstayed their welcome, whichever comes first.

They’ve repeated the cycle so many times that cocky Detective Gentry (James Remar) and his men are on their trail. Bob manages to stay a step ahead, but it’s getting tougher. He sees that his luck is running out — and it’s not just because of the hex that Nadine inadvertently put on them by mentioning a dog (one thing about Bob: he’s a bit superstitious).

To outrun one such hex — and more realistically, because Bob runs out of ideas and doesn’t know what to do next — they hit the road, stuffing their drug stash in suitcases, shipping them on Greyhound buses, and following them by car. A string of bad luck and bad outcomes presents Bob with an epiphany — and a choice.

With both humor and compassion, Van Sant — and for his part, Dillon — tells a moving and curiously relatable story about people who aren’t necessarily bad, but they’ve allowed their lives to drift away from them. Here, it’s for drugs. They don’t always do the right thing, and often the members of this little family of outcasts are each other’s worst enemies. But they’re realistic. Dillon makes Bob so likable that I find myself rooting for him even when he’s making bad choices; despite his flaws, I like him enough that I can see myself having fun with him.

Drugstore Cowboy easily could’ve been a very different movie. It works because it’s not preachy or judgmental or hyperbolic. Based on a novel by real-life criminal and addict James Fogle (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Fogle), Van Sant and Daniel Yost’s screenplay eschews melodrama for a decidedly objective and almost clinical approach, showing the joys of drugs in some visually well constructed sequences as well as the cost of addiction. The film does an excellent job showing how much work it is to maintain a habit. Throughout the movie, Dillon’s narration keeps the story grounded. Van Sant never sells out his characters’ humanity.

It doesn’t hurt that this film is loaded with spectacular performances all around, including those of Grace Zabriskie as Bob’s battleworn mother and William S. Burroughs as disgraced priest and fellow addict Fr. Tom Murphy. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives Drugstore Cowboy a drab, threadbare look that works well with Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score. Every element comes together to make this a truly remarkable film, definitely one of my favorites.

With Max Perlich, George Catalano, Janet Baumhover, Stephen Rutledge, Beah Richards, Robert Lee Pitchlynn, Ray Monge, Woody

Production: Avenue Pictures

Distribution: Avenue Pictures Productions (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Forum Distribution (France), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), GAGA Communications (Japan)

102 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) A+

Inland Empire [A Woman in Trouble]

(USA/France/Poland 2006)

“What the bloody hell is going on?” asks Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) at one point during Inland Empire, David Lynch’s last (so far) full length feature film. It’s an excellent question, one that anyone watching this three-hour nightmare no doubt has already wondered by this point.

Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, an elegant actress up for the lead in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, due to start shooting very soon. A strange Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who lives “just up the way” drops by her California mansion one afternoon and casually but ominously brings up a murder in the film. “That’s not part of the story,” Nikki tells her visitor, who insists she’s wrong and throws a tantrum right there in the sitting room, screaming about “brutal fucking murder” and an unpaid bill. Annoyed and visibly freaked out, Nikki has her butler (Ian Abercrombie) remove her.

Nikki gets the part. Some weirdness happens, and the film’s director (Irons) tells Nikki and her rugged costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) that the film is supposedly cursed: it’s a sort of remake of an old Polish movie called 47 that was never completed because of a double murder on the set. The actors are upset but they agree to proceed with production despite the producers’ lack of transparency.

Meanwhile, Nikki is falling for Devon. The narrative gets weird here, ping-ponging back and forth between Nikki and Devon and their characters, Susan and Billy, as well as Susan’s husband, Smithy (Peter J. Lucas), who knows something is going on. Billy’s wife (Julia Ormond) proves to be a character of interest of ever increasing importance, bleeding into another seemingly unrelated subplot about Sue Blue (Dern), a rough and caustic Hollywood chick who finds herself pregnant. The problem is, her husband (Lucas) is sterile. And just who are all these hookers hanging out with Sue, smoking and dancing to “The Loco-Motion” in her living room?

Interspersed between all this is yet another triangular subplot set in 1800s Poland: a cheating wife (Karolina Gruszka) learns that her husband (Krzysztof Majchrzak) plans to kill her lover (Lucas). And just to keep thing interesting, Lynch throws in “The Rabbits,” a spooky sitcom about a family of…rabbits. Actually, actors in rabbit suits (one of them has the voice of Naomi Watts). Later, Sue somehow ends up in their living room.

Probably his most indulgent film, Inland Empire is the kind of thing I imagine most people associate with David Lynch: a surreal trip through the subconscious, the imagination, alternate universes, and time that starts out with a discernible plot but disintegrates into seemingly disjointed events, actors playing multiple characters, bizarre and vivid imagery, random upbeat pop songs, and a creepy score by Marek Zebrowski. Flashes of Lynch’s usual sense of humor pop up here and there, but for the most part this is a dark and somber film about betrayal, loss, and karma. Perhaps its strongest aspect is its overriding sense of dread, and the worst thing about is that it’s impossible to tell whether the scary part is coming or has already arrived.

Inland Empire is surely a horror film. I imagine not many people getting into it, and most even being turned off. Length and structure—or lack thereof—aside, it’s not an easy film to watch or understand, and frankly I’m not entirely sure I grasp what the whole thing is about. Indeed, different characters say “I don’t understand” over and over, and Devon/Billy tells Grace/Susan a few times that she isn’t making sense. A common thread that ties the multiple plots together eventually emerges, but I get the impression that this is merely a heap of undeveloped ideas Lynch assembled into one big project.

Still, I found myself mesmerized all the way through it. The ending, where Sue’s fate plays out over the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is dowright distressing. In a way, it’s also beautiful. Lynch offers a lot to chew on here; I’ve gone over it multiple times since I saw it. I have my theory of what really transpires in Inland Empire, and someday I’ll watch again with an eye toward backing it up. It won’t be anytime soon, though.

Post script: I had the pleasure of seeing John Waters speak in the afternoon before I caught Inland Empire. Needless to say, it required a major shift in gears.

With Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd , Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, William H. Macy, Leon Niemczyk, Nastassja Kinski, Monique Cash, Latrina Bolger, Fulani Bahati, Ashley Calloway, Erynn Dickerson, Jovonie Leonard, Jennifer Locke, Helena Chase, Nae

Production: Absurda, Studio Canal, Fundacja Kultury, Camerimage Festival

Distribution: Ryko (USA), 518 Media (USA), Absurda (USA), Studio Canal (International), Mars Distribution (International)

180 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.inlandempirecinema.com

http://www.davidlynch.de

Wild at Heart

(USA 1990)

“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”

—Sailor Ripley

 

“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”

—Lula Pace Fortune

 

“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.

I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.

An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.

Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.

OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.

As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.

Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.

What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.

Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.

With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films

Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)

125 minutes
Rated X (alternate version)

(Music Box) B

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de