BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Van Sant on drugs.

IN MANY WAYS, Drugstore Cowboy might be Van Sant’s most satisfying film. And in terms of his ‘arty’ films, it might also be his most accessible. A downbeat film about drugs, the film seeks to neither glamorise nor heavy-handedly moralise about its protagonists. Instead, the characters just live, dreams cocooned away, knowing that a drug hit has the comfort of routine. Van Sant manages to turn a reasonably clichéd story into something fresh, raw and above all, moving.

Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) and his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) travel around Portland with another relatively speaking younger couple Rick and Nadine (played by James Le Gros and Heather Graham) robbing drugstores to get their fix. Bob is the leader, who while carrying the ennui of a man still stuck in adolescence, is a conservative patriarch. Diane, a nympho (though monogamous) junkie is perhaps the least developed character – it’s hard to feel the rush between her and Bob. Rick and Nadine are learning the ropes, but Nadine in particular suffers from the patronising behaviour of Bob and Diane.

The film is Dillon’s – he’s a revelation, carrying on the displaced characters of his earlier SE Hinton movies (Tex, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish) managing to elicit sympathy from a very unsympathetic character. A beautiful cameo comes from William S. Burroughs, as an irascible drug-addled (what else?) priest. Burroughs brings a kind of authentic intensity, and Van Sant doesn’t try to exploit Burroughs’ background. The interplay between Bob and Tom the Priest is the highpoint of the film where they learn to accept who the other is, and adds some emotional resonance into the narrative. Otherwise, the audience might have left a little cold, especially given that the film coolly explores the other human relationships.

That said, the film is very funny, and Van Sant integrates some oddball and gallows humour into the mix. Bob freakin’ out at a motel when there’s a sheriffs’ convention is a particular highlight. The camerawork is spontaneous, Bob’s dreams, structured like sweet avant-garde short films, get thrown in amongst the grungy realism and eccentric details. Drugstore Cowboy is a very rewarding piece of filmmaking, an ode to the little struggles of life, and the directions that people drift off into, like petals caught in the breeze.