Drugstore Cowboy (1989) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive drug content, sexual content, violence, and language
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham, James Remar, Max Perlich, William S. Burroughs
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenplay: Gus Van Sant, David Yost (based on the book by James Fogle)
Review published November 11, 2005

A breakthrough film for director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Psycho), Drugstore Cowboy followed the exploits of a group of junkies that got their fixes from the catches they'd get after robbing local pharmacies and hospitals of their prescription drugs.  At the time of its release, in the era of "Just Say No",  it was hard for audiences of the time to empathize with the drug lifestyle, especially for abusers that would rob, steal and threaten with bodily harm any that got in their path of a good high.  Looking back on it nowadays, it all seems a bit naive in its portrayals of junkies, but it still manages to hold up as a good film, thanks to the interesting characterizations and the visual flair of its director.

The story, based on the novel by James Fogle, takes place in the early 1970s, where a quartet of junkies form a small gang of thieves out to collect whatever they can stash in their pockets in drugs behind pharmacy counters without getting caught.  The leader of this band is Bob (Dillon, Singles), in his mid-20s, the disappointment of his mother but the envy of his peers in the drug culture.  His "nymphomaniac" girlfriend is Dianne (Lynch, Charlie's Angels), who wants them to regain the intimacy in their relationship they once had growing up, but Bob is constantly pushing her away, only interested in the immediacy of the feel-good high that is chemically induced.  Along for the ride is another couple, Rick (LeGros, Living in Oblivion) and his feisty young girlfriend Nadine (Graham, Swingers), who know they can keep the flows of drugs coming by playing along to Bob's schemes.  Meanwhile, Bob is constantly harassed by Det. Gentry (Remar, 48 Hrs.), a cop looking to nail him once and for all, biding his time to catch the young hood in the act.

Drugstore Cowboy echoes closely Bonnie and Clyde, both in the make-up of the gang of thieves, their idiosyncratic personalities, and also by being sympathetic with their anti-heroic plight.  Although their acts and the lives they choose to lead can be seen as unsavory, and even downright despicable, our insiders look does allow us to feel something for the people that may do bad things for their own vices, and in the end, come to an understanding as to the appeal. 

Although one can make a case that the film is anti-drug, perhaps a more accurate description of it is that it is ambivalent.  Van Sant shows the ups and the downs of getting high, from escapism from problems to overdose.  There is a theme that runs through that says that drugs can be beneficial for people looking to cope, but also that they aren't for everyone, and what's more, they outlive their usefulness by becoming part of the problem, rather than an escape from them.

The acting is spotty, and some of the situations seem rather contrived (a sheriff's convention rolls in right at the most inopportune time), but all in all, Drugstore Cowboy is a good drama, nicely directed, and with enough food for thought to make it worth revisiting from time to time.    

 Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo