Friday Editor’s Pick: Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

by on September 3, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 9Sat Sept 10 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

Gus Van Sant’s sophomore break-through kicks off a 13-feature retrospective of the director at MoMI.
Drugstore Cowboy‘s major champion, Pauline Kael, in the New Yorker (Oct 1989):

Nihilistic humor rarely bubbles up in a movie as freely as it does in Drugstore Cowboy. The jokes aren’t fully formed, and they don’t seem prepared for; they just occur, almost passively, as if they were a haphazard part of how the director, Gus Van Sant, looks at things.


Van Sant’s new film has a distinctive drug rust. The movie takes us inside a lot of underground attitudes, and the director likes these attitudes – he enjoys them, even though he’s grown beyond them. The druggies are monomaniacal about leading an aimless existence; they’re proud of wasting their lives. During their robberies (which are generally a shambles), and even during their scrapping, they see themselves as romantic figures. (They’re comic, but they’re not put down for being comic). When Bob applies to enroll in a methadone program, he explains to the social worker why people use drugs. He says that they’re trying to “relieve the pressures of their everyday life,” and, speaking slowly, as if he had no idea what example he was going to come up with, he says, “like having to tie their shoes.” Dillon delivers a line like this so that it sounds utterly natural. We grasp what he’s saying while we sense the exhaustion behind it. But now it’s the drug life that’s exhausting Bob.


Drugstore Cowboy has a superficial resemblance to Bonnie and Clyde, and it may recall the detachment of Repo Man and something of Jim Jarmusch’s comic minimalism. But Van Sant isn’t just a fan of his characters’ style; he partakes of it. This is a believable absurdism. Van Sant accepts the kids in the drug subculture without glamorizing adolescent romanticism (the way Rumble Fish did). Van Sant’s films are an antidote to wholesomeness; he’s made a controlled style out of the random and the careless. He rings totally unexpected bells. Dianne complains to Bob, “You won’t fuck me, and I always have to drive.” Drugstore Cowboy keeps you laughing because it’s so nonjudgmental. Van Sant is half in and half out of the desire of adolescents to remain kids forever.


Drugstore Cowboy 1989


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

This amiable, no-nonsense account of a quartet of Portland, Oregon, junkies in 1971 fully lives up to the promise of Mala Noche, director Gus Van Sant’s previous feature. Adapted by Van Sant and Daniel Yost from an unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle, this 1989 feature has the kind of stylistic conviction that immediately wins one over; it conveys something of a junkie’s inner life with its editing rhythms, unorthodox use of sudden close-ups, hallucinatory passages, and Matt Dillon’s offscreen narration, and it documents the outer necessities of the lifestyle (including many drugstore robberies and changes of address). The characters are all quirky and life-size (the Dillon character’s superstitiousness is one of the principal motors of the plot, and the story’s outcome doesn’t prove him wrong), and like Bill Forsyth’s handling of the burglaries in Breaking In, Van Sant’s treatment of drugs is refreshingly free of either moralizing or romanticizing. It’s one indication of his ease and assurance that he successfully integrates the persona of William S. Burroughs into a fiction film: all the actors are used expertly, but it’s Burroughs, cropping up near the end, who articulates the film’s sociopolitical moral in a contemporary context.

Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Van Sant’s low-budget movie takes a cool, contemplative and sometimes comic look at American drug-culture, manages for the most part to dispense with easy moralising, and comes close to grasping why the addiction to chemicals of every kind (‘A dope fiend always knows how he’s gonna feel’). Despite some Coppola-esque touches with speeding clouds, the stark simplicity of Bob’s fantasies suitably complements the overall gritty realism. But it’s the acting that carries the day: Dillon’s wildly obsessive and sporadically articulate Bob avoids the usual bratpack mannerisms, Remar makes a plausibly boorish cop, and William Burroughs brings a raddled, fragile integrity to the role of a junkie ex-priest Bob meets at a detox hostel.

William Burroughs‘s coda-scene cameo (with bonus French subtitles):


David Denby for New York Magazine:

Drugstore Cowboy is both sordid and funny – much of it plays at the edge of absurdist comedy. Set in Portland, Oregon in the seventies and based on an unpublished novel by James Fogle, a lifelong addict and thief currently serving a 22-year term in Walla Walla, Drugstore Cowboy doesn’t offer the usual warnings and cliches. Van Sant tries to capture the addict’s life from the inside; Drugstore Cowboy takes the point of view of the Dillon character Bob, a young dope-thief with a cracked sense of himself as an existential adventurer.


Playing this strange mixture of rationalism and criminality, Dillon is a good deal more alert than he was when he broke into movies a decade ago as a moodily beautiful but affectless teenager. The dreamy narcissism is gone; he projects enough intelligence to keep us interested in Bob’s ups and downs; he even shows some promising comic talents.


Stuart Rosenthal profiles the films for the New York Times:

”I saw this film as raw and real and not romanticized,” says Cary Brokaw, Avenue’s chairman. ”The screenplay delivered vivid characters and shows a world a lot of people have never seen. Its precedents are things like ‘The Hustler,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ ”


As the project evolved, the movie gradually became less bleak. The gritty material made many production people imagine ”Drugstore Cowboy” in black and white. ”I think Avenue always wanted a color movie,” says Karen Murphy, who serves as producer with Nick Wechsler. ”So the art director devised a palette emphasizing blue, dark green and black – colors that contrast strongly with white.” The psychological texture of black and white could be preserved while avoiding the more repressive effects of monochrome.


The story lightened further with the decision to film it as a period piece, set in 1971, eliminating the specter of AIDS and crack and helping make Bob more sympathetic. ”Matt Dillon thinks the kind of people who use drugs today are not the kind of people in this story,” Miss Murphy says. ”His point was, ‘I would feel more comfortable if my character were the guy I would be in ’71 and not the guy I would be today if I were a drug user.’ ” The journey from Mr. Van Sant’s dark, first-draft screenplay to a black comedy that plays on both allegorical and realistic levels has not been a cynical attempt to make ”Drugstore Cowboy” more salable. ”The contradictions are still there and still intriguing,” Mr. Brokaw insists. ”Gus just found a way to allow today’s audience to root for Bob’s survival without resorting to a happy ending in the Hollywood style.’



Stephen Holden reviews for the Times:

Set in 1971 in Portland, Ore., it offers a cool-eyed vision of young addicts adrift during the twilight of the counterculture. Both in its delineation of character and in its evocation of an era when drug taking still carried an aura of hipness, the film rings deeply true. Its downbeat mood, underscored by Abbey Lincoln’s haunting recording of ”For All We Know,” partakes of the same mood as such other relatively recent movies as “‘Round Midnight,” “Sid and Nancy” and “Patty Hearst.”


The way of life portrayed in the film is jarring in its abrupt changes of rhythms, as the somnolent lulls of consumption are broken by ferocious spasms of violence and paranoia. The film takes us so deeply into this shabby, transient world that we feel its texture – both its scary thrills and its bleak, fatalistic uncertainty. There are graphic scenes of the characters shooting up drugs and being rocked by waves of euphoria.


Nathan Kosub for Reverse Shot:

Drugstore Cowboy is a beautiful Oregon film; unlike Gerry, it resonates by being particular. In a random and refreshing helicopter shot, Van Sant shows off the countryside that pillows a car on the highway. He frames the sky from the rooftop of an apartment building in a way that notes the time of day. Van Sant then revisits the shot as the film progresses. But the invention seems instructed by a photographer’s eye, and lacks a director’s understanding of movement. In one telling scene, Bob runs into the wrong bathroom to escape pursuers. The feint is obvious to the audience, but Van Sant still includes a close-up on the “women’s restroom” sign. A director might assume that the eye is naturally drawn (by way of the panning camera) to the sign on the door; the photographer, accustomed to studying a picture at a pace the moving frame does not allow, films by reinforcing.


Sometimes the strengths of each medium mesh. When Bob begins his methadone treatment, he rents a small room, makes tea for himself, and stares out the window at the city beyond. It is important, in a scene like this, that his cup of tea be given a physical presence—almost a personality, in its role of relief and distraction both; relief from the long day, probably too cold, and distraction from the drugs that brought him here. The cup does have that quality. Like the static shots of the sky over the roof of an apartment building, it recalls a quiet state Bob lost. Or, at night, a fragile time-lapse shot captures the moon behind a bank clock; as its hands move forward, the moon traces the stars. But then, in the credits, Bob and his friends reappear in homemade Super 8s. They kiss, they smile (cue happier times), and in one particularly nostalgic pan, a one-eared dog hops by. Drugstore Cowboy is probably, with Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant’s best document of place.



A profile of Matt Dillon upon the film’s release, from Spin:

“Its definitely a black comedy,” says Van sant, “Sometimes the comedy sort of goes away and comes back. It’s like a Charles Addams sort of thing. Or maybe like Dr. Strangelove.” When dillon first read the script, he was suspicious of its humorous approach to such a grave subject. But after several more readings, a bit of introspection and a lot of research, he understood: the characteristics are funny and the characters are not.


“I just realized how saw it is, really, the fact that the rest of his life, t his friend of mine, he’s going ot have to struggle. He’s walking on a tightrope always. It’s like your soul gets so stained that can’t ever really cleanse it. You can probably be a better and more intelligent and wiser person because of it, but you’ll hever have that purity again. You see people who are constantly struggling with it. I saw one guy at an AA meeting, this one kid, just off the street, he was homeless. He was young. He was strung out. He was just trying to talk it out and share it. Tears in his eyes. Afterwards people make coffee, volunteer to clean up. and I saw this guy, he wanted so much to be able to clean up the room but it was too much for him. He didn’t have it in his heart to pick up a piece of paper off the floor. In that way, I realized how sad it really is and I reinterpreted the script.”


“I was haunted by it. I can be a pretty obsessive person; I’m not always, but when I am, I really am. Something will be on my mind all the time and that’s what happened. I was very depressed before doing this film. I found that I started to get into that selfish, bad attitude, feeling sorry for myself thing, just like a junkie. I really got into it. One day I came home and started crying man. The only way I was able to free myself was when I did the movie.”


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“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.


Like all truly great movies, “Drugstore Cowboy” is a joyous piece of work. I believe the subject of a film does not determine whether it makes us feel happy or sad. I am inutterably depressed after seeing stupid comedies that insult my intelligence, but I felt exhilarated after seeing “Drugstore Cowboy,” because every person connected with this project is working at top form. It’s a high-wire act of daring, in which this unlikely subject matter becomes the occasion for a film about sad people we come to care very deeply about.


At the end of the film, the Dillon character seems to have broken out of drugs. His wife is still on the road. “Are you crazy?” she asks him, when he says he wants to kick his habit. She literally cannot imagine life without drugs. He can. That is the difference between them, and in painting that difference, this movie shows the distance between hope and despair.


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