“Drugstore Cowboy” is one of the best films in the long tradition of American outlaw road movies – a tradition that includes “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Badlands.” It is about criminals who do not intend to be particularly bad people, but whose lives run away with them. The heroes of these films always have a weakness, and in “Drugstore Cowboy” the weakness is drug abuse.
The movie stars Matt Dillon, in one of the great recent American movie performances, as the leader of a pack of two young couples who are on the prowl in Washington and Oregon. It is 1971, and they are the rear guard of the love generation. They drift from one rented apartment or motel room to another in an aimless migration in search of drugs. They will use almost anything, but their favorites are prescription drugs and they have developed a smooth method of stealing them from drugstores.
We see them at work. The four enter a store separately. One of them creates a commotion – pretending to have a fit, let’s say. Under cover of the confusion, Dillon sneaks behind the prescription counter and scoops up as many drugs as he can identify. What drugs they can’t use, they sell. And when they aren’t stealing or on the road, their lives fall into a listless routine of getting high, watching TV, smoking, talking, waiting.
Sex is not high on Dillon’s list of enthusiasms. Like a lot of drug abusers, he is more turned on by drugs than sex – by the excitement of setting up a job, the fear during the actual stealing and the payoff afterward when he gets high.
He apparently has been with the same girlfriend (Kelly Lynch) since they were in high school, and at some point along the road they got married, but their eyes are turned toward drugs, not each other. They travel with a goofy sidekick (James Le Gros) and his girlfriend, a pathetic teenage drifter (Heather Graham). Together, they’re a family.
Drugstore Cowboy is a 1989 American crime drama film directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, and is based on an autobiographical novel by James Fogle. The film stars Matt Dillon in the title role, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham and William S. Burroughs. It marked Van Sant’s second film as director.
At the time the film was made, the source novel by Fogle was unpublished. It was later published in 1990, by which time Fogle had been released from prison. Fogle, like the characters in his story, was a long-time drug user and dealer.
Film Review for Drugstore Cowboy
The best thing about Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is that it is relatively honest about drugs and drug-taking. One writes relatively because, in the end, it is a Hollywood film and thus has to have a suitably upbeat and moral ending. But this tale of a junkie (Matt Dillon) and his girl (Kelly Lynch) who rob pharmacies to keep themselves in business is rather more than simply just another awful warning.
The second best thing about the film is that it is directed by Van Sant, an independent American film-maker who has so far examined the gay subculture in a series of movies of tiny cost and obviously limited appeal. Here, his fresh approach and truthful stance towards his characters gives Dillon the chance to give us his best work for some time, and Lynch the opportunity to underline her promise.
Van Sant, with the aid of cinematographer Robert yeoman, also shoots the film very well so that it becomes a kind of modern American road movie with some echoes of Two-Lane Blacktop. It is based, by the way, on a novel by James Fogle, himself convicted of similar robberies in the Seventies.
The third best thing about it is a marvellous little cameo from William Burroughs as a junkie priest, defrocked and unrepentant, since he considers the world easily as hypocritical as himself. And into his mouth come the most formidable lines about the way narcotics have been systematically scapegoated so that right-wingers can use the problem for an international policing system.
The little gang of desperados we see do not come off all that lightly either – ‘You’re grown up now,’ says a parent, ‘and you still act as children who want to go run and play.’ But they are not condemned out of hand since the world in which they attempt to do just that is not seen through rose-tinted spectacles.
This is what makes this often funny and sometimes tragic movie so worth seeing. It tries for a real argument and, despite its orthodoxly shocked ending, examines its subject with a much clearer and more mature eye than usual.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, Heather Graham, Eric Hull, Max Perlich, Grace Zabriskie, James Remar, George Catalano, Janet Baumhover
Screenplay by: Gus Van Sant, Daniel Yost
Production Design by: avid Brisbin
Cinematography by: Robert D. Yeoman
Film Editing by: Mary Bauer, Curtiss Clayton
Costume Design by: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Set Decoration by: Margaret Goldsmith
Art Direction by: Eve Cauley
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal
Distributed by: Avenue Pictures
Release Date: October 6, 1989