Gus Van Sants 1989 indie is filled with rich detail and insight into the life of a drug addict, brought to life by a career-defining Matt Dillon performance
Most people dont know how theyre going to feel from one minute to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.
Thats Matt Dillon as Bob Hughes in Gus Van Sants Drugstore Cowboy, offering one last revelatory insight via voiceover narration toward the end of the film. Portraits of drug addiction tend to wallow in spiraling miseries, like a hurricane that gathers strength and grows more destructive as it reaches landfall. Movies and television have taught us that drugs are about compulsion, chasing a high that steadily diminishes, and the film acknowledges that, too, with Bob talking about how he and his crew played a game you couldnt win. Yet Drugstore Cowboy ties that compulsion to organization and elaborate bits of drug logic and superstition, which suggests more structure to an addicts behavior than the ordinary persons. Staying high means planning for the next hit.
When the film was released 30 years ago, it was mere months after sex, lies and videotape changed the landscape for independent film, bringing some sense of order to what was then a disparate patchwork of small-time distributors and modest urban arthouses. (Drugstore Cowboy was put out by Avenue Pictures.) Yet a movement was taking shape around certain soon-to-be-brand-name auteurs: John Sayles, Joel and Ethan Coen, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and others, who were all in the early stages of their careers. For his part, Van Sant had won some attention for his self-financed debut feature, 1986s Mala Noche, a $20,000 black-and-white production that showed a sensitivity to the hard lives and doomed romanticism of young adults living on the margins.
Based on James Fogles memoir, Drugstore Cowboy could be a companion piece to Midnight Cowboy from 20 years earlier, in that both are about modern outlaws living hand-to-mouth in urban squalor, running short-term scams into long-term trouble. Only Van Sants film has a funny, offbeat, episodic quality that doesnt negate the heartbreak and tragedy thats peppered throughout it, but gives it dimension and surprising verve. As Bob and his crew of drug addicts his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his best friend and muscle Rick (James Le Gros), and Ricks teenage girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham) knock off drugstores in Portland and other cities across the Pacific north-west, they often look like merry pirates, plundering all the pharmaceutical treasures they can get their hands on. Van Sant even stages a sequence that makes them look like the Beatles clowning around in A Hard Days Night.
More than anything, Drugstore Cowboy is a film defined by its attention to lived-in detail: the anecdotes and harrowing capers from Fogles book, the specific habits and philosophies of its characters, the overcast vividness of its setting, which extends to the various apartments, motel rooms and flophouses that serve as temporary quarters to these transient junkies. The smash-and-grab robberies planned by Bob each have their distinctions, but his modus operandi is to have the others create a distraction while he raids the back counter for powerful opioids like Dilaudid to shoot up their arms. In one sequence, that involves Nadine faking an epileptic seizure in the front of the store while Bob dives toward the back; in another, Dianne and Rick stage a hilarious impromptu demolition derby near the hospital as Bob takes a crowbar to a locked cabinet inside.