By Mike D'Angelo
July 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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With a best director Oscar nomination for the runaway indie hit “Good Will Hunting,” Gus Van Sant finally earned Hollywood?s approval. Too bad he did it by repressing the instincts that made him one of the movies? most unpredictable iconoclasts.

For dramatic contrast, rent the movie that put Van Sant on the cinematic map, “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989, Artisan, R, $9.98). A lovingly detailed, nonjudgmental account of four hapless junkies in 1971 Oregon, it?s one of those rare movies in which every camera angle and movement seems inspired. Surreal, hallucinatory imagery?like the tiny flying cow (pre-“Twister,” mind you) that pinwheels across Matt Dillon?s drug-addled face?abounds. The quartet of first-rate performances (by Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and a very young Heather Graham) and riveting narrative are strictly gravy; what makes “Drugstore Cowboy” one of the best films of the ?80s is Van Sant?s mastery of the lens.

“My Own Private Idaho” (1991, New Line, R, $19.98), Van Sant?s next picture, was less impressive overall, largely because great honking portions of it involved Keanu Reeves reciting contemporary variations on speeches from Shakespeare. Watch the tape with the sound turned off, however, and you?ll be mesmerized by gorgeous time-lapse photography and weird, unforgettable visual metaphors. Ostensibly the story of a narcoleptic hustler searching for his mother, “Idaho” is really the director?s paean to the eerie beauty of the open road; it?s dramatically unsatisfying, but unquestionably among the most visually accomplished films of the past decade.

“To Die For” (1995, Columbia TriStar, R, $19.95) was a low-key delight that owed its success less to its rather tired cautionary anti-media gibes than to Van Sant?s deft, masterful construction (with screenwriter Buck Henry) of a complex series of interviews, talk-show appearances, newspaper headlines, and interwoven flashbacks.

Given this eclectic résumé, I can?t imagine what attracted Van Sant to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?s reasonably witty but often painfully schmaltzy story of a slumming genius and his therapeutic breakthrough. True, “Good Will Hunting” looks gorgeous (it was shot by famed Jean-Yves Escoffier, the French cinematographer of “Les Amants du Pont Neuf” and “Gummo”), and Van Sant?s skill with actors is apparent, but in most respects the film might as well have been directed by Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, or any number of other Hollywood craftsmen; apart from a goofy slow-motion brawl early on, there?s not a trace of Van Sant?s usual style or sensibility. It?s a good little movie, full of clever dialogue and sharp observations. It just didn?t require a Gus Van Sant. But we still do. Come back, Gus. Drugstore Cowboy: A My Own Private Idaho: C+ To Die For: B Good Will Hunting: B?

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