'Drugstore Cowboy' - Movie Review

Updated on July 19, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

In the Pacific Northwest in early 1970, a group of drug addicts methodically rob pharmacies for their own business and consumption.

The gang consists of Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), the leader and the one who specifically does the work of breaking locks and stealing the loot; Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his wife and the one in charge of the getaway vehicle; and his friend Rick (James LeGros), his right hand along a young girl called Nadine (Heather Graham).

All the creativity and effort of the band is focused on stealing from pharmacies. From sneaking through open windows to faking seizures in the middle of the store to draw attention and make booty vulnerable, Bob is an expert on the matter.

Of course, the payoff is immediate. After a hit, the gang hit themselves with the loot inside hotel rooms and itinerant apartments. It's a sad vicious circle of a group of junkies, letting their days pass while they follow the same dangerous routine of stealing to get high.

Bob has an addictive personality that goes beyond drugs. He's fascinated by the rush of the danger of the crimes. He usually prefers to immediately plan the next hit (and execute it) before, for example, making love to his wife.

During the first half of Drugstore Cowboy, we see and know the dynamics within the group. Bob, extremely superstitious, cannot help but try to control all aspects of the gang. They have a constant strategic battle with the local police, which repeatedly fail to obtain evidence to condemn them.

The winning streak ends when Nadine, ignoring Bob's warnings, dies after secretly consuming a lethal dose of Dilaudid. But according to Bob's point of view, that's not the worst part: Nadine has left a hat on top the bed, which is a big no-no for the superstitious. To make everything more complicated, the gang learns that they must vacate the motel room soon since the entire site has been set for a regional sheriff convention, who have already arrived at the site.

Bob makes a pact with the higher power ("God, Satan or whatever is up there" as he says), promising that if he manages to escape from this mess, he will abandon drugs, undergo rehabilitation and have a normal life with an honest work.

As this setting demonstrates, Drugstore Cowboy is driven in the territory of dark humor. But it does so with a sobriety and realism so genuine, that the dramatic component and tension never leaves the story.

And it should not. After all, the script is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel by James Fogle, which at the time of the premiere of the film was imprisoned precisely for theft of narcotics. His novel wouldn't be published until after the success of the film.

Matt Dillon is everything in this movie. His Bob is an interesting character: superstitious, fearful of the higher power and with an addicted personality, he's a human who is undoubtedly in a permanent search for something that alters his reality.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Drugstore Cowboy is that it doesn't become an anti-drug conservative pamphlet. Bob meets an elderly drug addict neighbor named Tom-played by the legendary post-modernist writer William S. Burroughs-who manifests the paradox of how more lives are violently extinguished as the result of the escalated demonization of drugs. It's an interesting point of view about the clandestine industries that will be born irremediably as a consequence of the illegality and how the oppressive politic mechanisms that try to stop them only worsen the situation.

For current standards, Drugstore Cowboy looks somewhat tamed. If we ignore the Nadine death scene (with a grayish makeup closer to a George Romero movie), the addicted characters in this film look unrealistically as healthy and beautiful Hollywood stars. Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and Heather Graham are basically magazine models while at the same time they are supposed to look like junkies, which reduces the strength and veracity of the narrative.

But let's not be ungrateful. The only reason why films such as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream managed to create a most realistic portrayal of drug-use in cinema was because Drugstore Cowboy existed in the first place.

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Drugstore Cowboy set a new standard, creating a story about drug abuse that managed to balance perfectly between its stylization and glorification (Matt Dillon will always look cool as fuck while robbing pharmacies and using) and the genuine portrayal of the destructive consequences of addiction.

Because although Bob manages to maintain a normal life for a while, his old life full of addictions will end up almost killing him. Bob concludes, on the borderline between life and death, that he can probably never escape the drug lifestyle.

And the biggest tragedy of that thought is that that was exactly what happened in the real world. James Fogle would end up relapsing in his criminal life and dying of mesothelioma in 2012, at 75, while incarcerated.

Movie Details

Title: Drugstore Cowboy

Release Year: 1989

Director(s): Gus Van Sant

Actors: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros a.o.

2 stars for Drugstore Cowboy

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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