Drugstore Cowboy: Van Sant’s Great Film, Starring Matt Dillon–Part 1

Drugstore Cowboy is a film about a gang of junkies who rob pharmacies to support their drug-induced lifestyle. Efforts to secure Hollywood backing for the project were thwarted by Van Sant’s nonjudgmental approach. It was, after all, the era of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” a hollow, sloganeering prescription for drug-free America.

Read Part II of this essay

Drugstore Cowboy: Van Sant’s Great Film, Part 2

The script was rich with procedural details of how to obtain and how to use drugs, and studio executives feared that the movie would promote drug abuse. Recalled Van Sant: “A lot of people in Hollywood said this is ‘an immoral film’ that promotes drug use.” Anticipating some backlash, he could see how the sympathetic characters could motivate amateur junkies to further their drug habits to an extreme. “The movie may make a junkie want to go out and take drugs,” Van Sant commented semi-seriously, ”but the movie isn’t a political statement about drugs.”

A newly-formed independent company, Avenue Pictures, which favored more personal and unorthodox films (such as Alan Rudolph’s “Choose Me,” in 1984), put the necessary $6 million. The project was produced by Laurie Parker, who had a track record with such indie titles as Spike Lee’s splashy debut, “She’s Gotta Have It” and Jim Jarmusch’s widely praised sophomore, “Down by Law,” both of which came out in 1986. Going from a self-financed $25,000 budget of “Mala Noche” to the ultimately increased budget of $7 million was not just impressive, but also made significant changes in the filmmaking process: pre-production, casting, shooting, and editing. The bigger budget enabled Van Sant to work with a professional ensemble, headed by Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch, to cast his hero novelist William S. Burroughs Jr. as a junkie priest, and to pay all of them decent fees.

Van Sant was attracted to the gritty quality of the writing and the subjective perspective of the central con man, who’s the narrator. Co-penned by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, a journalist for the Oregonian, the script was based on an unpublished novel by James Fogle, an inmate at Washington State Penitentiary, who at one time had essayed to write his own memoirs. Fogle claimed that the lead, Bob Hughes, was a composite character of several thieves of prescription drugs, but others felt that it incorporated many episodes of Fogle’s own experience. To ensure authenticity, Van Sant ran some of his ideas by Jim Carroll, the former drug abuser and then author of “The Basketball Diaries,” a critically acclaimed memoir about drug culture in the 1960s, published in 1978 and made into a 1995 movie, starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg. Other texts that inspired “Drugstore Cowboy” included “Junkie,” the 1953 pioneering chronicle by William S. Burroughs Jr., and Larry Clarke’s books of illuminating photographs, “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust,” which portrays in unusually graphic mode drug addicts. Van Sant would produce Larry Clark’s feature directing debut, “Kids,” in 1995 (See discussion later).

Remarkably, Van Sant succeeded in avoiding any kind of preaching an anti-drug platform, or turning his work into a message film. As he explained: “Not being a drug addict myself, I was making it for myself, and for the lay public, as a way of experiencing the life of a drug addict.” For Van Sant, “Drugstore Cowboy” was in fact an anti-drug story, as he later explained, “It was like an anti-war film that has a lot of killing in it. My position on drugs comes through if somebody is really looking for it, and though my position is admittedly lightly ambiguous, it was never my intention to make a pro-drug film.”

Nonetheless, he made several concessions or compromises. The tale’s setting was moved back to 1971, a more naïve era, in which dope and other drugs still projected an aura of cool hipness. The subject was not entirely new: Several bold movies about drugs had already been released, including Roger Corman’s LSD chronicle “The Trip,” scripted by Jack Nicholson, ”Panic in Needle Park,” and of course, the Dennis Hopper-Peter Fonda iconic “Easy Riders,” in 1969. The tale makes no references to politics, or the outside reality of the Vietnam War, Columbia University Student Revolution, Kent State Massacre, or President Nixon. More importantly, the new historical setting eliminated the specter of AIDS and the effects of crack, the 1980s lethal drug.

Van Sant also turned Bob into a more sympathetic character by making him seeks redemption. In the last chapter, Bob decided to go straight, checking into a rehab facility. And in the ambiguous finale, having been shot and wounded, Bob is taken in an ambulance to the hospital. Finally, casting Bob with the good-looking and charismatic Mat Dillon made the anti-hero even more likeable. In his appealing screen persona, Dillon combined street toughness and emotional vulnerability, traits that are crucial for Bob’s character. Dillon, then 25, was a handsome heartthrob, who made an impression in his 1979 debut, “Over the Edge” and then in Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” in 1983, but in the late 1980s, his career was already in decline. He needed a good movie, to put him back on the map, as much as his director.

As a chronicle of the (mis)adventures of bumbling fools- petty criminals, “Drugstore Cowboy” provides an inside view of the drug world and its inhabitants, a wild bunch of youths proud of their aimless existence. Though lyrically shot and boasting an offbeat nonchalant tone, by Van Sant’s standards, the film is a tad too conventional in its linear narrative. The film-journal delineates an outlaw quartet that exists as a nuclear family, made of Bob, his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch), younger member Rick (James LeGros), and Rick’s girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham). The two couples differ in age and experience. Bob and Dianne are married and in their late 20s, Rick and Nadine are younger, in their early 20s. In Many ways, the younger and naïve ones function as surrogate children, in a similar way that Sal Mineo’s latently gay Plato related to his classmates-parents, James Dean and Natalie Wood, in “A Rebel Without a Cause.”

In the opening scene, Bob struts down the street, greeting a female passer-by with a compliment of her hat, stopping by a water fountain and then heads into the pharmacy that he plans to rob. He is followed by the gang’s members who enter one by one to distract the owner’s attention. Suddenly, Nadine fakes a seizure that creates a chaotic panic, during which Bob sneaks into the offices and cleans up the shelves. By the time the alarmed pharmacist calls for an ambulance, Nadine simply gets up and leaves—to the amazement of all the customers there. After the heist, Bob shoots up in the backseat of the getaway car driven by Dianne, who reproaches him for being impatient. As Bob trips, Van Sant shows his subjective reverie in which various objects float: spoons, toys, airplanes, cows, and chickens, reflecting Bob’s childlike and childish nature—and Van Sant’s homage to “The Wizard of Oz,” the MGM fantasy film that has influenced every director in this book (ano others, like David Lynch).

The quartet of druggies practice their craft, robbing drugstores and hospital pharmacies for one purpose, to satisfy their personal needs. They aim low: All they hope is to elude the law and find a new haven–at least for a while, and this temporary haven is treated by Van Sant as a fairytale land.

Early on, they are visited by David (Max Perlman) a young junkie who lives nearby. Feeling superior, Bob treats David with contempt, and there will be grave repercussions for his mistreatment. Occasionally, the gang’s motel or temporary apartments are ransacked by law enforcers, led by narcotics officer Gentry (James Remar), who is engaged in cat-and-mouse chase with Bob, obsessively determined to bust and throw Bob behind bars. Bob concocts an intricate plan that causes one of Gentry’s officers to be shot by an angry neighbor. Bob manipulates the man, claiming that the neighborhood is unsafe at night; there are all kinds of strangers climbing up ladders, and watching into the residents’ private bedrooms. When Gentry and his men beat up Bob in retaliation, he knows that their luck in this particular location had run out and they leave in a hurry.

On a rare excursion that they are outside of their immediate locale, Bob and Dianne visit Bob’s mother (Grace Zabriskie), not because he misses her, but for practical reasons, to get his remaining clothes or steal cash money from her purse. In one of their drugstore raids, they get the strong drug of Dilaudid, which Van Sant shows in close-ups to accentuate the “wow” effect. Later on, Bob narrowly misses the police at a motel, when, ironically, the law officers meet for a convention and his room is needed.

Unfortunately, when they are on one of their missions, Nadine overdoses and dies. While Nadine’s corpse is hidden in the ceiling crawlspace, Bob has a nightmare in which he sees himself caught and handcuffed. He believes that Nadine’s death is an omen—in defiance she had mischievously placed a hat on her bed. In the end, he decides to abandon drugs, but he leaves alone, as Dianne cannot exist without drugs and doesn’t wish to reform.

At a rundown hotel, Bob encounters Tom, a former priest and longtime addict who had initiated Bob into substance abuse. Displaying acting style that differs from the naturalistic performances of the other members, Burroughs raves in long, angry, feverish monologues. Dianne later visits Bob, insensitively leaving him drugs, which he gladly hands in to the more appreciative Tom. In their farewell, which is decidedly unsentimental–Dianne tells Bob that she is now working for and living with Rick as his lover. Shortly after, David breaks into Bob’s room, and when Bob fails to convince him that he has no drugs, David shoots him. Earlier, Bob had interrupted a street fight, stopping David from harassing a crying teenager, which upset the hoodlum. But again, living by his inner code, Bob refuses to rat on David and doesn’t inform Gentry as to who had shot him.

The quartet sees themselves as romantic figures, sort of contemporary Bonnie and Clyde, but Van Sant takes a more satirical approach, emphasizing their petty crimes, the fact that their robberies involve low stakes. They steal drugs for self-consumption, not for profit, and some of their adventures often end as shambles. Their lives are totally devoted to pleasure–their activities are subsumed under the goal of, as Bob says “getting happy and staying happy.”