Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy is a 1989 independent feature that put its maker, Gus Van Sant, on the cinematic map. Starring Matt Dillon, it followed the antics of a small troupe of drug addicts (headed by Dillon) as they attempt to maintain a constant fix – and as they deal with the inevitable negative consequences that come of it.

The film begins with Dillon narrating over grainy low-quality home videos of his friends and him. It sets the scene for the low-budget flick ahead, and establishes Dillon’s voice as one that will lead the audience through it. It’s effective and used well – in fact, some of the special effects have very obviously aged, but the literary-like narration provided by Dillon puts them in a dreamlike context, making them seem oddly appropriate.

The best thing about this film is the way Van Sant has allowed the content to shape the form. Drug addiction controls this movie as strongly as it controls the characters in it. Macro shots of narcotics give them the visual dominance that parallels the sensual dominance they have for Dillon – for him, to be high is better than sex, and drugs commandeer the film appropriately. The style, often dreamlike as mentioned, is always cohesive with the fixation on sedative-hypnotics.

The film shows how a drug addict will employ every possible method to get drugs. Dillon’s character is a slacker, rejected even by his mother on the grounds of uselessness – yet his cross-country transportation of drugs and the robberies of pharmacies that lend the film its title obviously require a great deal of intelligence and cunning.

These factor into why Dillon has such a likable character in the film. It helps that he recognizes signs and omens, and actually follows through on an attempt to better himself after tragedy. Maybe he’s just so spurred because of his memorable belief in hexes such as “hats on beds”, but whatever compels him to try to clean up, it produces one of the easiest characters to root for that you’ll ever find in a movie about drug addicts.

The climax of the film happens about halfway through, but the rest of the film is just as engaging as the characters deal with the fallout and adjust their lives accordingly. Dillon’s path takes the audience to a fantastic cameo by William S. Burroughs as an aging priest drug addict. His monologues and political diatribes – shakey they may be, no doubt the result of the tons of drugs he had taken (both in the film and in reality) – are perhaps the highpoint of the film, and make it worth watching by themselves.

But that weight doesn’t have to fall on Burroughs’ feeble old shoulders, because Drugstore Cowboy is a great movie through and through. Its only flaw is the now dated soundtrack, as some abrasive synthesizers really begin to grate the ears – yet even this is partially negated by the great choice in songs that occasionally substitute for the minimalist jazz compositions. Drugstore Cowboy is a great story with interesting characters, and provides an excellent glimpse into the life of drug addicts. Though it ends with tragedy, it is not without hope, a refreshingly optimistic standpoint from a film that spends most of its time drenched in drug-fueled paranoia and misanthropy.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse





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