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GUS VAN SANT EASES borders into oblivion. In all four of his feature films—Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and now Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—characters test the margins by way of drugs and sex and sometimes love, much as Van Sant himself defies esthetic limits. In Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon leads a crew of pharmaceutical pirates as visions of spoons and syringes dance in his head; in Idaho, the doors of perception swing open on a stretch of asphalt, only to close whenever River Phoenix takes a dive.

At first glance, Tom Robbins’ creaky ’70s novel, with its soft-core feminist whimsies, seems strange territory for Van Sant. Take another look, though, and there are plenty of clues as to why he decided to make time with Sissy Hankshaw, the hitchhiking beauty whose massive thumbs take her from coast to coast, woman to man, and back again. “They were not a handicap,” goes

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