“I knew it in my heart. You can buck the system but you can’t buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface. The ones some people call superstitions.”
I drove up to Louisville back in November to see The House That Jack Built, the newest Lars von Trier movie. Matt Dillon plays a serial killer in the 70s and 80s, and the film depicts his most brutal murders, depositing his victims in a pizza freezer. By the end of the film, Dillon’s character seeks no forgiveness, and he is granted no redemption. He is a remorseless monster, evading capture and looking for the easy way out until his final breath. In Drugstore Cowboy, which also stars Matt Dillon, it’s more complicated.
Dillon plays a heroin addict named Bob who leads a posse of thieves including his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch), his friend Rick (James LeGros), and a young man with a clean record named Nadine (Heather Graham). Early in the film, Bob seems to be a charismatic leader, but his grasp on both reality and his circle of friends begins to crumble as his addiction worsens. He becomes arrogant, paranoid, and fixated on superstition and hexes, putting him at odds with his crew until a tragic episode claims one of their lives, forcing Bob to re-evaluate his position in life.
The movie is charming in a playful way, especially in the first half. As Bob makes his way into the first robbery of the film, he turns to a nearby stranger and tells them, “I like your hat.” The film highlights his addiction with fun music and scenes of ethereal delusions. Bob also narrates the film, lending favor to his character. It can be hard to root for Bob, but his redemption in the second half is genuine and tragic. I found myself wondering how far the tragedy would stretch, whether Bob would be given a second chance or just a bullet to the head. I was, in fact, pleased with the direction the ending took. The latter half of the movie also features a surprise visit from William S. Burroughs in a fun turn as a drugged out priest, expanding on the film’s themes of addiction and morality.
I think The House that Jack Built and Drugstore Cowboy would make a neat double feature. Matt Dillon does some of his best work in both films. He’s arrogant and manipulative, chasing satisfaction with a blatant disregard for the laws of society. (Spoilers for both ahead.) One movie finds release in the literal deepest pits of hell, eternal punishment for the crime in the case of Jack. But the titular Drugstore Cowboy faces an almost sadder fate. He tries desperately to clean up his act and find comfort in a “boring life.” But his final words suggest that the drug life can never be escaped. It’s a bottomless pit, not unlike the pits of hell, and Bob can only seem to fall deeper.
The film is an impressive product of Gus Vant Sant’s career. It was only his second film, and he would go on to make an ecclectic collection of films that I hope to explore further in the future. (I’ve only seen Elephant.) The crime genre is best when it shows us the consequences, and Drugstore Cowboy doesn’t hold back.
Films Left to Watch: 819