The Motion Picture Academy, which likes respectable films that make responsible statements about important problems, gave Driving Miss Daisy the 1989 Best Picture Oscar. But most other year-end awards groups gave honors to Drugstore Cowboy, an irreverent independent movie about reprehensible lowlifes. The National Society of Film Critics voted it Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
It’s easy to see why. While Driving Miss Daisy rolls along at a safe speed through familiar sunlit territory, Drugstore Cowboy is a wild ride into the silly and sinister drug underworld. This tense, tough tale about a gang of Oregon junkies, circa 1971, is based on the real-life adventures of convict James Fogle (whose prison term ends in 2001). But its gritty truthfulness is buoyed by visual lyricism and a droll sense of the absurd. Imagine a combination of Bonnie and Clyde, Peter Pan, and Local Hero.
As the leader of the gang that won’t grow up, Matt Dillon triumphs over his lightweight image. No longer an aging teenager, Dillon is funny, subtle, and utterly winning in what could have been an unsympathetic role. The entire cast is close to perfect: Kelly Lynch as Dillon’s frustrated sex kitten and canny partner in crime; James Le Gros as their comically doltish accomplice (the archetypal Northwestern hippie); and Max Perlich as a nerdy, bucktoothed neighbor kid who becomes Dillon’s evil nemesis. William Burroughs, the famed addict and novelist, turns in a wonderful performance as a narcotized priest who sounds like W. C. Fields.
The thoughtful pauses in Drugstore Cowboy seem longer on video. The soundtrack loses some of its punch, too, when the thudding pulse and heavy exhalations of the robbery scenes are reduced to background whispers on TV speakers. Even so, Drugstore Cowboy packs plenty of life and imagination into the small screen. It makes the rest of the year’s Hollywood cops-and-robbers flicks look like two-bit rip-offs.