DRUGSTORE COWBOY was one of a group of films that led to the explosion of American independent cinema. Director Gus Van Sant generally maintains his highly stylized vision, regardless of a film's budget. His later films continue to illustrate the dreamlike moments contained in highly disturbing situations.
The film captures a slice of Americana through the back door. Bob (Matt Dillon) is an energetic junkie who leads his wife (Kelly Lynch) and another couple on a reckless spree of drugstore robberies, for drugs. When he has a brush with death, Bob realizes he must leave both his addiction and his wife if he wants to survive. Van Sant's lush photography gives us a glimpse into these lives, lending immortality to people on the fringes of society. DRUGSTORE COWBOY is a classic film that launched the career of one of the most important American directors working today.
“Most people have no idea how they’re going to feel from one minute to the next, but a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you have to do is look at the labels on the little bottles.”
Bob (Matt Dillon) has a good head on his shoulders; he knows who he is and what he’s doing. When we meet him at the beginning of Drugstore Cowboy, he’s satisfied with a life of leading a gang of drugstore robbers. They’re looking not for money, but for drugs. Bob has three people working for him – his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his partner Rick (James Le Gros) and Rick’s inexperienced girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham).
Drugstore Cowboy paints a warts-and-all picture of life in an early 1970s drug gang on the West Coast of the U.S.A. Based on the unpublished novel by James Fogle, who was in prison on drug-related charges when the film was made, the story is uncompromising in its realism. The gang robs drugstores, dodges the police, makes a few deals with other druggie types and spends a lot of time flat on their backs spaced out on stolen drugs.
Of course, this kind of life can’t go along smoothly forever. When things take a very bad turn, Bob contemplates a change of direction. Bob believes strongly that, “You can buck the system, but you can’t buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface.” When he sees dark forces looming, he knows it’s time for a change.
Van Sant was an inexperienced director when he made this film, and it’s a sparse-looking success. His young cast delivers strong, realistic performances, led by Dillon and Lynch. Author and former drug addict Williams S. Burroughs makes a fascinating appearance as Tom the Priest, a philosophical junkie Bob knew as a child and meets again during his efforts to get clean.
Ultimately, Bob finds it isn’t easy to escape his past. The film is less thorough than it might have been in portraying his efforts to get clean, as we step back from the intimacy of earlier scenes to watch from a safer distance.
Van Sant has said that Drugstore Cowboy is an anti-drug film, and it is just that – although it shows the attraction of drugs as well as the destructive consequences. It’s refreshing in it use of reality, rather than sermonizing, to make its point.