Drugstore Cowboy Is a Breakthrough Portrait of Addiction
By Robert Silva
When “Just Say No” was a schoolyard slogan and the War on Drugs was a moral crusade, Gus Van Sant’s indie classic offered an unapologetic view of dependency.
Released in 1989, Drugstore Cowboy sees its world through the eyes of its characters: drugstore-robbing junkies in the 1970s Pacific Northwest. The sophomore breakthrough of director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Last Days), the film is casually idiosyncratic, shifting from absurdist comedy to downbeat drama, and back again. It’s a fitting style for characters whose lives veer from ecstasy to dread, depending on whether the next fix is in hand.
Matt Dillon plays the crew’s leader, Bob, a resourceful schemer with a sixth sense for cosmic dangers. Much of the deadpan comedy of Drugstore Cowboy comes from Bob’s superstitions about dogs and mirrors. “A goddamn hat on the bed is the king of them all,” Bob instructs newbie Nadine, a very young Heather Graham, with grave seriousness. “If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like, you’ll never see me again.” Van Sant depicts Bob’s delusions as a Pop Art swirl of hats, superimposed over his creased brow, spinning as if on the wheel of fate.
Squirreling away grab-and-go opiates, the addicts form a makeshift family. Bob, the patriarch, has lost sexual interest in his wife, Diane (Kelly Lynch), but they’re inseparable in other ways. “I loved her,” Bob recalls in the film’s opening narration. “And man, she loved dope. So we made a good couple.” Nadine and her beau, goateed sideman Rick (James LeGros), complete the pack.
Their methods are simple: Nadine fakes a seizure in a drugstore. The pharmacist runs to help. Bob scurries behind the counter and shoves pill bottles into a trash bag. It’s advanced shoplifting. Drugstore Cowboy captures these freewheeling lives with a minimum of moralizing. After all, they know what they want — how many people can you say that about? — and they live in the moment. It’s either the best moment in their life, or the worst.
Without giving too much away, something bad happens halfway through the film. It shifts in tone as Bob tries to get clean on the methadone program. Van Sant doesn’t ham up recovery in a teachable moment. Bob lives in a fleabag Portland hotel. He gets a job drilling holes in machinery. It feels like a daydream, perhaps because it is.
It’s not exactly a Come to Jesus moment, and chances are this won’t be Bob’s last attempt at getting clean. He meets an elderly dope fiend, played by Naked Lunch writer William S. Burroughs, who is on “the program” but still looks back fondly on his druggy days. The old man is going through the motions, but hasn’t really bought into ordinary life. He’s still thinking about the good times he hasn’t lost his taste for. That perspective is Drugstore Cowboy in a nutshell.
These characters are perhaps a little too cleaned up, but audiences have seen the dirty realism of junkies before. Drugstore Cowboy offers more of how this crew see themselves, how they tell their own stories: misfits living an alternate existence to the workaday world, where happiness is measured out in small doses, if at all.
Does anyone change? Is life guided by anything more than random logic? Hats on beds? Perhaps why Drugstore Cowboy still works is that it is unresolved, the opposite of a cautionary tale. It doesn’t have anything to say about drug addiction except that it’s hard, fatalistic work.
The unrepentant tone can surely be traced to James Fogle, who wrote the novel Drugstore Cowboy in prison, and knocked off drugstores in real life. Screenwriter Daniel Yost befriended Fogle and brought the unpublished book to Van Sant’s attention. This circularity of Fogle’s life is mirrored in the film which begins and ends with Bob in an ambulance gurney. Bob goes everywhere and nowhere. “We played a game we couldn’t win,” Bob says at the film’s start. “To the utmost.”