The outlaw and petty criminal have a long tradition in American cinema. Sometimes they even look quite stylish. Gus Van Sant made quite a splash with his second film Drugstore Cowboy (1989) which adds a very distinctive chapter to that tradition. The film was based on an unpublished novel by the writer James Fogle, himself a dealer and user, who at the time of filming was in prison. What made Drugstore Cowboy special?
An honest look at drugs
Drugstore Cowboy follows the low-key adventures of a gang of drug users in Northwest America around 1971. The two men and two women, resembling something of a family, move from city to city where they rob local drugstores and hospitals, relying on trickery instead of violence. Bob, the leader of the gang (played by Matt Dillon), is quite pragmatic about their life. As the lone voice-over, he also has plenty of great lines on the life of the user. Early in the film Bob impatiently starts to use from their newly acquired stash which results in one of the classic observations on drugs:
“After any kind of drug haul, everyone in the crew indulged. I laughed to myself as I pictured blues and Dilaudid in such great amounts on the spoon that it would literally be overflowing. Upon entering my vein, the drug would start a warm itch that would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion. It began in the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft, lofty appeal. Everything was grand then. Your worst enemy – he wasn't so bad. The ants in the grass – they were just, you know, doin' their thing. Everything took on the rosy hue of unlimited success. You could do no wrong, and as long as it lasted, life was beautiful.”
Drug use in cinema is seldom presented as unproblematic and although Van Sant does not use the tired moralistic clichés of other directors, Bob does eventually grow tired of his life, going from score to score. After making the decision to go straight he will find out how dreary life can be without the cushion of drugs. He also discovers that quitting drugs entails more than just an existence without substances, life has to be reinvented with the old lifestyle making some unexpected reappearances.
The Style of Drugstore Cowboy
Traditionally drug users in film were portrayed as dirty, violent outcasts. Van Sant makes a clean break with this idea and while the gang is at times shabby they also are good-looking, slightly glamorous, in a strange hybrid of the early seventies and late eighties styles. Matt Dillon was at that time a serious star coming off a string of successful teenage films. Kelly Lynch earlier had a breakthrough with Cocktail (1988) and the young Heather Graham also made a surprise appearance as the youngest member of the gang. Drugs motivate them but do not take over every aspect of their life. In a sense, they live an alternative mobile lifestyle without being driven by a number of materialistic needs, but also without the usual dangers of life on the streets.
Cinematically Drugstore Cowboy is a quiet film. Van Sant uses a slow pace without any big effects or heavy emotional music. For instance, the monologue mentioned above is accompanied by a very subtle hallucination. This gives Drugstore Cowboy a rather unique, languid feel, even the climactic moments feel distant.
William S. Burroughs
One of the biggest surprises in Drugstore Cowboy is the appearance of the writer William S. Burroughs. The author of Naked Lunch has a short role as an old junkie who Bob visits from time to time while he is going straight. Burroughs was the perennial American outsider, adored by many artists, but himself far too cynical to crave the spotlight. His appearance in the film is in that sense fairly unique. With his calm demeanour and characteristic voice he really adds something special, even claiming one of the funniest moments in the film. But the cooperation of Burroughs also works as a seal of approval, ensuring the story has the right amount of authenticity.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, James LeGros
Running time: 102 minutes