Drugstore Cowboy

(USA 1989)

“You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive.”

— Dianne Hughes

“If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you’ll never see me again. I’m gone.”

“Show time!”

“Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

— Bob Hughes

“Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.”

— Fr. Murphy

I love everything about Drugstore Cowboy, the first film I ever saw by director Gus Van Sant. It’s the one that I view as his gold standard even after nearly 30 years. Funny, touching, and insightful in ways that have to be seen, it speaks to me. It probably always will. It’s a rare film that has it all: flawlessly executed from start to finish, it’s totally absorbing and entertaining yet still makes its points in a way that hits hard even after seeing it dozens of times.

Bad Bobby Hughes (Matt Dillon) — or just “Bob” — is the first one to tell you he’s a junkie. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), lead a small nomadic “crew” that consists of Rick (James LeGros) and his young girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham). The four of them spend their days getting high and devising elaborate — and amusing — schemes to rob drugs from pharmacies and hospitals. Then they go out and execute their mission.

Once they’ve made a score, they do the drugs they like, sell the ones they don’t, hang out doing little more than watching TV, and move onto another neighborhood somewhere else in Portland, Oregon, when they’ve either run out or overstayed their welcome, whichever comes first.

They’ve repeated the cycle so many times that cocky Detective Gentry (James Remar) and his men are on their trail. Bob manages to stay a step ahead, but it’s getting tougher. He sees that his luck is running out — and it’s not just because of the hex that Nadine inadvertently put on them by mentioning a dog (one thing about Bob: he’s a bit superstitious).

To outrun one such hex — and more realistically, because Bob runs out of ideas and doesn’t know what to do next — they hit the road, stuffing their drug stash in suitcases, shipping them on Greyhound buses, and following them by car. A string of bad luck and bad outcomes presents Bob with an epiphany — and a choice.

With both humor and compassion, Van Sant — and for his part, Dillon — tells a moving and curiously relatable story about people who aren’t necessarily bad, but they’ve allowed their lives to drift away from them. Here, it’s for drugs. They don’t always do the right thing, and often the members of this little family of outcasts are each other’s worst enemies. But they’re realistic. Dillon makes Bob so likable that I find myself rooting for him even when he’s making bad choices; despite his flaws, I like him enough that I can see myself having fun with him.

Drugstore Cowboy easily could’ve been a very different movie. It works because it’s not preachy or judgmental or hyperbolic. Based on a novel by real-life criminal and addict James Fogle (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Fogle), Van Sant and Daniel Yost’s screenplay eschews melodrama for a decidedly objective and almost clinical approach, showing the joys of drugs in some visually well constructed sequences as well as the cost of addiction. The film does an excellent job showing how much work it is to maintain a habit. Throughout the movie, Dillon’s narration keeps the story grounded. Van Sant never sells out his characters’ humanity.

It doesn’t hurt that this film is loaded with spectacular performances all around, including those of Grace Zabriskie as Bob’s battleworn mother and William S. Burroughs as disgraced priest and fellow addict Fr. Tom Murphy. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives Drugstore Cowboy a drab, threadbare look that works well with Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score. Every element comes together to make this a truly remarkable film, definitely one of my favorites.

With Max Perlich, George Catalano, Janet Baumhover, Stephen Rutledge, Beah Richards, Robert Lee Pitchlynn, Ray Monge, Woody

Production: Avenue Pictures

Distribution: Avenue Pictures Productions (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Forum Distribution (France), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), GAGA Communications (Japan)

102 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) A+