Tag Archives: gus van sant

Drugstore Cowboy – Review

28 May

In 1990, a novel by James Fogle was released. The text told an autobiographical tale of drug addiction, crime, and the consequences that come with the decisions to engage in that type of lifestyle. Interestingly enough, a movie called Drugstore Cowboy came out in 1989 which is based off of the novel that came out in 1990. Well, that’s a weird circumstance, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that Fogle was still in prison in 1989 and wasn’t released until the following year. With Gus Van Sant in the director’s chair and source material such as this, this film was bound to become something special.

Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is living life to the fullest. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Dianne (Kelly Lynch), he has friends that are willing to follow him to the ends of the earth, and he spends his days free of any kind of employment to live his life as a free spirit. He’s also addicted to all sorts of drugs, and will go to any lengths for a fix. His main source of pharmaceutical income is to rob drugstores blind. His luck seems to be coming to an end when a particularly invasive run in with Detective Gentry (James Remar) forces him to leave town and find new means of getting his fix elsewhere. Unfortunately, Bob and his crew can’t seem to catch a break and it doesn’t take long for tragedy to hit the group harder than they ever expected. This forces Bob to really examine what he’s done with his life and wether he’s willing to give it all up to finally find some stability or stick with his usual ways and live a life where death is right around the corner and paranoia is his right hand man.

In 1996, Trainspotting was released and changed the way films about drugs could be made. In 2000, Requiem for a Dream was released and this film redefined these rules. Before all that, however, was Drugstore Cowboy. This was a modern look at drug addiction that helped pave the ways for these other classic films. By today’s standards, Drugstore Cowboy is pretty tame, but it stands tall in the world of film history. This was a movie that showed a realistic and disturbing side to drug addiction, while also being darkly funny in its dialogue and minor idiosyncrasies that are present in all humans, even if they are addicted to world altering substances. This is where this film shines. It shows characters with deep flaws, other than the obvious, while also showing their strengths. It’s clear that Van Sant didn’t want to take sides, but rather depict addiction in its true form when it comes to physiology and the law.

With its meandering plot points and unfocused direction, Van Sant successfully portrayed the lifestyle he was trying to depict. In any other movie, this would be a fault, but since we’re talking about addicts who will hit the open road whenever they want to and completely relocate their lives, it works well. Something that doesn’t work all too well for me is how Van Sant examines the consequences of their actions. There are a few excellent scenes where the characters get what’s coming to them, and those are some of the more satisfying scenes of Drugstore Cowboy, because it makes the choices the characters make have more weight. Then again, there’s something that happens in the middle of the movie that doesn’t end up being resolved by the end. It’s also a little hard to believe these characters can remain so calm and appear so cool under certain circumstances right after how they just got done saying how desperate they are to get high. Maybe Trainspotting just spoiled me.

The writing in this movie is definitely unique. For most of the movie, we have characters in situations that I could really see happening. Matt Dillon is excellent as Bob Hughes, the leader of this gang of miscreants. He plays well with Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, and Heather Graham. Graham and LeGros have a chemistry all their own, which also adds good moments of comedy and serious drama. It’s also a real treat to see William S. Burroughs as a drug pedaling priest. The dialogue they are given often works well, like when Bob is talking about his different superstitions. There are times that it feels a little bit too theatrical, which is something I’ve seen in Van Sant’s work before. For a movie that is trying very hard to be realistic, it kind of loses me when hear a line that sounds like it was written for a movie and not for a character I’m supposed to believe is real.

Drugstore Cowboy is definitely a movie in this subgenre of drug movies that holds a firm spot in film history. It was an honest look at the lifestyle of these wandering addicts that I haven’t seen depicted before this film. I will say that I would have liked it to go a little bit farther. That means the movie could have been a little longer or maybe if the boundaries were pushed a little bit more. Still, despite the lack of grit that I would have liked to have seen, it shows characters that I’ll have no problem remembering and scenarios that are completely unique to this movie. It’s not my favorite movie on the topic, but it’s still a very good film.

Final Grade: B+

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Elephant – Review

9 Sep

There are many things in life that completely baffle society which leaves us longing for a concrete answer. Many of these things revolve around apparently senseless violence, nonetheless senseless violence against children and teenagers. This is a very difficult topic to make a film about since you would have to walk a thin line between exploitation and dealing with the topic appropriately. Only in the right hands would violence against youth be handled correctly, and thankfully this is the case with Elephant, handled so well by Gus Van Sant. Not only dealing with the violence and horror of school shootings, Van Sant also examines the more microscopic violence and horror of high school and the effects of having so many clashing personalities in so confined a space.

Elephant

The morning starts just like any other at Wyatt High School in a quiet suburb in Portland. John (John Robinson) has to deal with being late for school once again because of his alcoholic father. Elias (Elias McConnell) spends his time taking pictures of students and developing them in the dark room. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea) worry about something obvious that remains unspoken, and Michelle (Kristen Hicks) worries about fitting in with the other girls. What remains unseen by all of these students are the activities of Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are quietly formulating a plan to get revenge for the years of bullying that they have suffered through. Soon, this normally quiet school erupts into violence and bloodshed.

Elephant is one of the most brutal and disturbing films that I have ever seen, and it will probably remain that way until the last movie I ever watch. Many of the films that I have called disturbing certainly still will be, but the realism behind this and the thematic material involved hurts more than most films. This is one of those movies that could literally be sliced from a day of a real, seemingly normal day. This makes sense since Van Sant clearly took inspiration from the tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School. With all of the disturbing content, the most memorable part of this movie in terms of how it’s made, is the amount of really heavy suspense and the way the camera flows through the scenery; a technique that made me feel like I was a character in the movie.

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What Gus Van Sant succeeds at doing with this movie is making the viewer, whoever they may be, feel like they are these active observers in the sense that they move with the characters and see pretty much everything they are doing, but passive in a way that they can’t do anything about it. We follow the characters through the hallways like they are lab rats in a maze who are then faced with variables, Alex and Eric, that completely destroy everything about what they know. We are also never given much information about the characters. We only know just enough about them to know who they are on a basic level. Don’t mistake this for Van Sant turning this into a cold experience. The horror and shock is still felt on a very human level. This is film making at the most excellent.

Another thing that works really well in Elephant are the questions that we are left with. I always like to think about a movie when it’s over, but this one made me want to have a full blown discussion. The title of the movie refers to the famous saying about there being “an elephant in the room,” a saying that is now about the violence that Alex and Eric have, but also about the subject of these events happening in our schools and who to blame. Columbine isn’t an isolated incident, and after each event like it, people are always looking for something or someone to blame. What Gus Van Sant has shown with Elephant is that there really is no easy solution. There are too many things that happen, from the smallest event to the largest tragedy, that can effect someone, especially in this age group. It would be too easy to blame the media or gun control or whatever since there is simply too much to consider.

On every level, Elephant is a success. I believe that this movie should be required viewing, not just to film students trying to learn to hone their craft, but also to a younger generation as a way to show what their actions could do or even to understand the natures of other people. The violence, as disturbing as it is, isn’t senseless and the beautiful camerawork is really something that I could write a whole essay on itself. Elephant is a prime example of a talented film maker showing the level that film as an artistic medium can be taken to, but also how to properly use it as a tool for social awareness.