Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Drugstore Cowboy

Originally Written and Posted at on 11/15/05 w/ Extensive Revisions.

1980s independent American cinema helped open doors for films of all subject matters. One of them was drug abuse were many independent filmmakers took a more realistic, documentary-like perspective into the drug culture. One director in the late 80s went full-on for a dramatic approach in his exploration on drugs and his name was Gus Van Sant. After helming his 1985 debut feature Mala Noche, Van Sant had been hailed as a new visionary yet wasn't ready to move into the Hollywood circuits as he wanted to remain independent in his vision. No matter what subject he wanted tackle, even after a brief stint with Universal that failed. Van Sant moved to Portland, Oregon to create his tale of the drug world with 1989's Drugstore Cowboy.

Based on an unpublished novel by James Fogle, Drugstore Cowboy is a chronicle about four young drug addicts in 1971 Portland who scam their way into stealing pharmaceuticals at drugstores to feed their addiction. While evading a cop and staying at an apartment to plan their next heist, tragedy emerges as their leader tries to stay clean despite his wife's continuing addiction and the world he tries to leave behind. Adapted into a script by Van Sant and Dan Yost, the approach is more cathartic tale of four young, dysfunctional people living as a family while dealing with their addictions. Starring Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham, James Remar, Grace Zabriskie, Max Perlich, and Naked Lunch novelist William S. Burroughs. Drugstore Cowboy is a gritty, off-the-wall masterpiece from Gus Van Sant.

Longtime drug addict Bob (Matt Dillon) has made a career stealing and using pharmaceutical and prescription drugs with help from his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch). With help from a couple of young addicts in Rick (James LeGros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), they have been successful as Nadine fake seizures while the rest steal. Using these drugs for themselves, Bob also tries to deal with a fellow dealer named David (Max Perlich) who is trying to rise up in the game. Bob is also trying to avoid a cop named Gentry (James Remar) who often checks for any of the drugs Bob and his gang has stolen. During a visit to see his mother (Grace Zabriskie), Bob and Diane ponder their own future as they also try to find a new home.

When Nadine asks Bob about getting a dog, Diane reminds her about the superstitions that Bob has where he believes that a dog or a hat on a bed would curse them for some time. After a prank on Gentry during a police assignment, Bob and the gang leave Portland where another heist is foiled by Nadine's clumsiness. Forced to hide out again, Bob finds a drug he had stolen as he makes another attempt at a hospital that was almost successful. The jinx that Bob claims is happening finally hits someone forcing Bob and Diane to leave only to be trapped by a nearby sheriff's convention prompting Bob to go straight.

Returning to Portland, Bob goes into treatment as a counselor (Beah Richards) takes him in where he befriends a former priest named Tom (William S. Burroughs) whom bob knew as a kid. Tom's wisdom prompts Bob to lead a straight life as he gets some unexpected help from Gentry. Yet, Bob's past would come to haunt him as Diane makes a chilling return along with some old adversaries.

Most films about drugs would either glorify or just attack the culture yet in Van Sant's approach, the film is not really about drugs. From his view, it's really about a family and their dysfunctions while feeding their habits in stealing from drug stores. It's also a story about a man who lives a certain lifestyle only that he realizes that it's not cracked up to be only to try and straighten up. The script Van Sant and Dan Yost come up with is excellent for its realism as well as surrealism in Van Sant's direction that includes fantasy backgrounds in whenever Bob is getting high or is feeling elated about something. While the film has a sense of doom in the second act, the third act is where the story shifts into a story where Bob finds himself in a room full of addicts. The conversation is about drugs yet there's no judgement towards them since Van Sant is really viewing them as human beings.

Everything that Van Sant comes up with is very well, even with the ending where in Bob's narration, it has a sense of irony. The narration really brings a perspective in what Van Sant wants to say, especially since it's from the words of James Fogle, the story's original novelist. The narration is unique while the film starts and ends in the same place and same time. The structure is pretty original in how it builds up a story, especially in the death scene where the emotions are mixed on how Bob and his team react. A lot of the credit goes for Van Sant for not glossing anything or being exploitive at the same time.

Helping Van Sant with his outlook and arty visual style is cinematographer Robert Yeomen who brings a dreamy yet gritty look of the film in the exterior scenes in Portland while in the interiors, brings a wonderful intimacy with his lighting and camera work. Production designer David Brisbin and art director Eve Cauley also bring an authenticity to the look of the hotels and homes since the film is set in 1971 along with Beatrix Aruna Pasztor on the costume design, particularly for the clothing of Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham. With wonderful layers of cinematic visuals done by editor Curtiss Clayton, the film has a nice, multi-dimensional look in the dream backgrounds of Bob while it's nicely paced throughout the film. Composer Elliot Goldenthal brings a wonderful score to the film for its dramatic moments and dreamy sequences while the film features a nice soundtrack of late 60s/early 70s music.

Then there's the film's wonderful cast that is filled with realistic and powerful performances including memorable ones from Max Perlich as the naive drug dealer David who gets caught up in his power, Grace Zabriskie as Bob's strict but loving mother, and Beah Richards as a wise drug counselor. The most eerie performance of the entire film is late Beat novelist William S. Burroughs who gained notoriety for his drug novel Naked Lunch. Burroughs gives a mesmerizing and disturbing performance as a former priest who continues to use drugs while providing some strange insight into its culture and roots. James LeGros is excellent in his performance as the doltish but resourceful Rick who manages to find his way and help out Bob while being the only real supporter for his young, naive girlfriend Nadine. James Remar is also brilliant in his role as Gentry, a cop who is willing to do anything to bust Bob. Remar might seem like a villain but he brings a lot more sympathy for Bob in trying to help him straighten out and when Bob does go straight, Remar becomes an unlikely supporter.

The film's most surprising performance goes to a young Heather Graham as the naive, innocent Nadine. With her winning smile and naive behavior, Graham makes herself into a believable character who is new to the game while learning and after a series of screw-ups, Graham takes her character to new dramatic heights as her performance is the film's real breakthrough. Kelly Lynch is also great in her role as Diane, a veteran junkie who is aware of the traps of the game but remains very upbeat on all levels, even as Bob leaves to go straight. There's never a moment in which Lynch gives a dull performance as she graces the screen with her amazing beauty and intelligence.

Then there's Matt Dillon who gives probably the best performance of his career, especially at the time when he had fallen off the radar for a while after his great moment in the early 80s. Dillon brings a lot of complexity and charm to his role as an addict who seems to know everything. Even when it comes to superstitions and how to create a perfect scam and heist. When Dillon goes straight, we see him trying to struggle with his upcoming role only to become content right till the end. This is truly one of the best performances of the decade and a real reason in why Matt Dillon is one great actor.

Drugstore Cowboy is a wonderful yet provocative film from Gus Van Sant that features a great cast and superb imagery. While Van Sant's best work is yet to come with the gay road drama My Own Private Idaho, it's this film that put him into the map of the independent film movement. While more mainstream fans will find this interesting, it's more likely they'll enjoy To Die For and Good Will Hunting more though fans of his recent work will definitely love Drugstore Cowboy. For a film with a lot of grit, surrealism, great performances, and a wonderful style, Drugstore Cowboy is the film to see.

(C) thevoid99 2011


Cherokee said...

Finally got round to watching Drugstore Cowboy, and it is safe to say I loved it!

You bring up some good points about Van Sant showing these characters as human beings, and not just drug users. That's what annoys me about most drug-related films is that they usually take the moral high ground and preach about how wrong taking drugs is.(Probably why I love Trainspotting so much is that it doesn't do that.)

Personally, I found Burroughs pretty hilarious (maybe because he is probably playing himself, but a priest version.)

Either way, this film makes me love Gus Van Sant even more than I had done, and you have done a great job writing about it, too.

thevoid99 said...

Thanks. This is one of my favorite Van Sant films as well though probably in the top 10 of his work.

I have a couple of more Van Sant reviews to put out as I'll release one this week and another next week and hopefully do some work on his shorts and the music videos he's directed. I'm nearly done with my Auteurs essay on Van Sant but I want to wait for the release of Restless later this month.