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The Ups And Downs Of Gus Van Sant

Movie-A-Day: Drugstore Cowboy

Starring: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham
Director: Gus Van Sant
Year Of Release: 1989
Plot: Bob Hughes and his ‘family’ of drug addicts travel across the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s, supporting their habit by robbing pharmacies and hospitals. After a tragedy strikes the group, Bob decides to try to go straight, but finds that there is more to extricating himself from the drug user's lifestyle than just giving up drugs.
The Move-A-Day Project is a series of articles based on a multiude of subjects inspired by a different film each day. To find out more about the project click here, or for the full list of previous articles and future movies we'll be covering click here.

Since his feature film directing debut in 1985 with Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant has made 13 movies, ranging from indie classics and mainstream Oscar-winning hits, to disastrous Hollywood remakes and derided adaptations of much loved books.

While he’s renowned as a challenging and visionary director, like many who think outside the box, it’s meant what he’s actually produced over the last 25 years has been incredibly variable, both in terms of subject, as well as quality.

So it’s time to chart the ups and downs of Gus Van Sant’s career, and see whether he’s boomed more than busted.

Mala Noche (1985)
Store clerk Walt meets young illegal Mexican immigrants Johnny and Pepper. Falling for Johnny, he makes a pass at the boy, but is rejected, and while Pepper is more amenable to his advances, it’s Johnny that he wants.

Boom Or Bust?: With his first film, Van Sant staked a claim to be a leading figure in the emerging queer cinema movement, something he’s never completely left behind (as many directors have) but hasn’t completely dedicated his life to either. While it’s his most resolutely indie effort (with the requisite ‘naturalistic’ (i.e. bad) acting and lack of an ending), it’s still a film that sticks with you.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Bob Hughes and his ‘family’ of drug addicts travel across the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s, supporting their habit by robbing pharmacies and hospitals. However Bob discovers that attempting to go straight is anything but easy.

Boom Or Bust?: More accessible than Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy was Van Sant’s first film to show off his skill at mixing indie sensibilities with characters and a style that can appeal to the mainstream. The film takes the classic elements of the road movie and introduces a slice of realism that makes it a great watch and Van Sant’s first real success.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Partly and very loosely based on the Prince Hal subplot of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Mike is a narcoleptic street hustler, whose best friend is Scott, who’s also hustling, but mainly doing it as an act of rebellion against his privileged upbringing. The film explores their relationship, although Scott may never truly reciprocate Mike’s feeling.

Boom Or Bust?: One of the first queer cinema efforts to find mainstream traction, My Own Private Idaho is undoubtedly an indie classic, and it’s the film more than any other that River Phoenix’s legend rests on. Mike is a strange but wonderful creation and his journey is both immensely moving and tragic.

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993)
Sissy Hankshaw was born with enormous thumbs, which makes her the best hitchhiker around. Her journeys around the US see her becoming a model, before befriending Bonanza Jellybean, one of the cowgirls at the beauty ranch. However Sissy’s adventure on the ranch eventually lead to an armed siege.

Boom Or Bust?: After the success of My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant tried to go a little more mainstream while still attempting to keep his indie cred, but rather failed with a strange adaptation of Tom Robbins cult novel. Before Van Sant’s film, many said the book was unfilmable, and on this evidence, they were right.

To Die For (1995)
Despite not being particularly talented, nothing will stop Suzanne Stone’s plan to become a world famous news anchor. She marries a man with mob connections to ensure she’s got the backing to put her plans into practice, starting as a local weather girl. However when her hubby begins to get in the way, she seduces a student and tries to get him to kill her spouse.

Boom Or Bust?: A massive step up from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, To Die For is a delicious black comedy, which probably didn’t find that much box office success, purely because it goes to some pretty dark places. However it’s a great film, with Van Sant showing off his knack for make indie movies accessible.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Despite working as a janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a genius level intellect, but due to his background he tries to hide it. After a professor realises his potential, he saves him from jail, with the proviso that he studies maths and sees a shrink. However Will is defensive and doesn’t want therapy, until Sean Maguire manages to build an uneasy bond with him.

Boom Or Bust?: While in some respects Good Will Hunting was massive step towards the mainstream, Van Sant was nevertheless working from a script by first time screenwriters, and taking a chance with Robin Williams in a serious role. Lacking his usual indie inflections, Van Sant created a drama with true heart and emotion, which deservedly became an Oscar-winning box office hit.

Psycho (1998)
After stealing money from her work, Marion Crane goes on the run. She decides to stop off at the quiet Bates Motel, run by the quirky Norman Bates. However when she decides to take a shower, Marion gets more than she bargained for, leading to the discovery of disturbing truths about Norman and his mother.

Boom Or Bust?: Rather in the way that My Own Private Idaho opened doors which led to the failure of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Good Will Hunting allowed Van Sant to take a big step towards the mainstream, which led to the disastrous decision to do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Completely pointless, it was rightly derided and has scared Van Sant off doing anything that Hollywood again.

Finding Forrester (2000)
Jamal Wallace is an inner-city kid from the Bronx who’s also a writing prodigy, but whose light has been hidden under a bushel. However after scoring high on his standardised tests, Jamal goes to a new, better school and finds help in a reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who discovers a new lease due to his relationship with the boy.

Boom Or Bust?:  Although not a bad film, Finding Forrester suffers from seeming like a substandard attempt to create a Good Will Hunting clone (even Matt Damon shows up for a cameo). Unlike most Van Sant films, this one lacks any edge and seems purely designed to try and create a box office hit.

Gerry (2002)
A friendship between two 20-something men is tested to its limits when they go on a hike in a desert and forget to bring any water or food with them. They end up lost and wandering aimlessly, which eventually leads to tempers fraying to breaking point.

Boom Or Bust?: After the failure of Psycho and Finding Forrester, Gus didn’t just retreat back into indie territory, but went into full-on, low-budget experimental mode, with a movie which, despite starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, was never going to finding mainstream success. The semi-improvised movie suffers from being incredibly boring, with far too little plot or nuance to last 103 minutes. It's way too loose to hold anyone’s attention, even though the possibilities for an interesting film are present but under-explored.

Elephant (2003)
The same day is told from the perspective of several different high school students, detailing their lives, all the time building towards the fact two of the kids are planning a Columbine style massacre.

Boom Or Bust?: Although it was never going to becoming a money-spinning hit, the Palm D’Or winning Elephant may well be Van Sant’s greatest achievement. Beautifully subtle, Elephant uses its conceit of showing the same events from different perspectives to subtly study the pressures of teen life, and show how what may seem nothing to one person, can be something far different to someone else. Whilst high school massacres are difficult to explain, this is one of the best attempts to get into that mindset.

Last Days (2005)
A fictionalised take on the last days of Kurt Cobain, Blake is a drug addicted rock star buckling under the pressure of fame. Retreating to his rundown mansion, Blake tries to escape from those looking for him, wandering around in a depressed haze that will eventually lead to his suicide.

Boom Or Bust?: Still steering well clear of the mainstream (despite the ‘Is it about Kurt Cobain? conceit), unfortunately Van Sant didn’t seem to have learned any lessons from Gerry, that people wandering around not doing anything (and with no sense of why you should be watching), is just boring. Despite moments of interest, most of Last Days is just tedious.

Paranoid Park (2007)
After accidentally killing a security guard in a freight yard, young skateboarder Alex must come to terms with what he’s done. Questioned by the police (although they don’t have direct evidence he was involved), Alex attempts to deal with it, even though he won’t tell anyone, finally expressing his thoughts through writing.

Boom Or Bust?: Van Sant is normally at his best when dealing with issues of growing up and negotiating the boundary between the effects of a scarred childhood and adulthood. While not as a good as some of his earlier youth-oriented movies, Paranoid Park was nevertheless a return to form, a quiet movie that reveals interesting depths, and once again showing how good the director is with dealing with alienation.

Milk (2008)
A biopic of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the film follows him from his closeted, buttoned up life in New York, to finding his voice in San Francisco in the 1970s. He becomes the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, fighting for the rights of all citizens to be themselves. However in 1978, tragedy strikes.

Boom Or Bust?: One of the few unapologetically and unabashedly gay themed movies to find both box office and Oscar success (I don’t count Philadelphia as it was largely de-gayed), Milk is a great film. Never compromising on its vision to show Harvey as both a trailblazer and a flawed gay man, as well as stirringly recreating the early day of the gay rights movement, Van Sant’s return to the semi-mainstream was a triumph.

So what’s next? Well, since his success with Milk in 2008, Van Sant hasn’t had any more films released, but he’s just finished shooting Restless, about two young people who share a pre-occupation with mortality. The film will star Mia Wasikowska, Henry Hopper, and should reach cinemas next year. Whether it’s be a one of Van Sant’s busts or a masterpiece is yet to be seen.


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