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

Part 2 of an essay analyzing Van Sant’s sophomoric bliss.

Read Part I

A comedy of the absurd, with visual touches of expressionism and tonal notes of surrealism, “Drugstore Cowboy” is humorous rather than grim, as it could have been in the hands of another director. Van Sant succeeds in making the story less bleak without sacrificing the spirit of the original source. The text’s offbeat sense of absurdity largely derives from his insights into the peculiarities of the junkie subculture, and from the director’s idiosyncratic approach. Seen from the P.O.V. of the junkies, the events depict their state of high, when they are on drugs, and their states of low, on the rare occasion that they are sober.

The film’s spirit is deliberately removed from reality. Van Sant does not try to show their experiences from a “more objective” perspective. The tale unfolds as a fairytale where everything works out in the end. When the characters are high, they are goofy and funny, but there is also the downside, when the junk wears out. “Drugstore Cowboy” is a black comedy about addicts who may be immoral but not amoral. In fact, they are far from being unprincipled individuals. They live by a strict code of ethic that dictates how to behave in varying conditions. Bob has his own set of rules as to what is right and what is wrong, and he is extremely superstitious about what brings him good or bad luck. The gang’s “Ten Commandments,” expressed by Bob, when he is sober is: “You should never look at the back side of the mirror, because you’ll be looking at your inner self.” The owner of a hat may have the evil eye, so if anyone puts a hat on a bed, it’s trouble. All cats, not just black, are bad. Talking about dogs is bad; there’s a flashback to the tragic ending of Bob’s dog.

Van Sant avoids preaching a hypocritical anti-drug message, maintaining throughout a nonjudgmental attitude about his characters. He goes out of his way not to have a single false move or word. Van Sant didn’t want the characters to do anything that was inconsistent just in order to satisfy the generic conventions of Hollywood movies, or to please the expectations of audiences conditioned by mainstream cinema.

The humor is low-key, but not punched up: Even the one-liners are not over-emphasized. In a scene between the always-horny Dianne and the laid-back and not particularly sexual Bob, Dianne complains, “You don’t fuck me anymore, and I have to drive.” While in the methadone program, the shamelessly unrepentant Bob explains to the drug counselor (played by African-American actress Bea Richards, Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”?) that people who use drugs are trying to “relieve the pressures of everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

The fast-moving, frenetic life of petty crime and drugs defines a specific if restrictive sub-culture. The members’ sole focus—their raison d’étre–is satisfying their drug needs in the fastest ways. Their world is guided, as Bob says in one of his voice-overs, by “the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface, the ones that some people call superstitions, howling banshees, black cats, hats on beds, dogs, the evil eye.”

Most refreshingly, the characters do not represent familiar types. Bob is street-smart but superstitious, living by his wits, showing intuitive feelings as to when to move ahead with the raid and when to lay low. He claims that inner voices tell him to “Get out there and get it. It’s there for the taking. It’s free this week.” Dianne, Bob’s drug-dependent wife is feisty, tough, and randy. Rick, Bob’s second in command, is a minor-league criminal, full of contradictions: He could be clear but also vapid, tough and gentle, goofy and serious. Nadine, the amateur grafter, is a confused teenager that needs to be loved. Though novice and insecure, Nadine tries to assimilate into the group (too) quickly. She insists on getting her fair share after her first heist, demanding to shoot up, just like the rest of the clique.

That said, the secondary roles are underdeveloped, mostly fulfilling plot points, including David, the neighborhood druggie and small-time dealer, and especially Gentry, the pursuing police officer. Burroughs’ Tom the Priest appears in the last, nearly surreal sequence, set in Seattle’s shabby St. Francis Hotel. With his pride and gravitas, Burroughs elevates the role of a junkie priest, which originally had been written as a pathetic loser, to another level. (He also throws the film off balance)

Ordinary objects are shown by Van Sant in extraordinary ways, reflecting the protagonists’ skewed vision, particularly when they are high, and his own vision. In Bob’s reverie, objects float on to the screen and off, or they spin against swirling clouds, whose colors change. After burying Nadine, Bob experiences another vision, in which hats are flying in front of his eyes, perceived as omen of bad luck. The stylistic device of showing objects in close-ups, first impressing in “Mala Noche,” recurs here with coffee cups, light bulbs, lit cigarettes, cluttered ashtrays, hats. Often punctuating the end of scenes, they are used as abstraction of visuals that reflect Bob’s fertile mind and distorted memory of the past.

Color and décor add key elements in establishing the offbeat tone. Rather unusually, green is the dominant in the overall scheme: There are green cars, green clothes for Dianne, green furniture, green walls, not to mention the natural green of the Pacific Northwest. The movie was shot in the late fall, and the dry season with its overcast skies allowed cinematographer Robert Yeoman to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in natural light. The costume design is distinctive, too, replacing the customary Hollywood gear of tight blue jeans and torn white T-shirts, which were worn by James Dean and Brando in their rebel movies (“The Wild One” and “A Rebel Without a Cause,” respectively). Instead, Bob wears V-neck and mohair sweaters, velour shirts, plaid slacks, brown shoes in lieu of sneakers or boots.

The film begins and closes with Abbey Lincoln’s song, “For All We Know.” Other tunes include Bobby Goldsboro’s “Little Things,” and Ronny Erickson and Jack Johnson’s singing of “I Am.” But it’s Desmond Dekker and the Aces singing the melodic “The Israelites,” which injects joyous vitality and continuity as the band adventurously moves from one location to another.

In the “Seattle Times,” the critic Paul Andrews captured the unique quality of “Drugstore Cowboy” in its blend of “absurdist humor with near-documentarian realism.” In this movie, he wrote, “drugs have a certain fascination. They open up your consciousness. They’re fun. They carry the danger of any addiction, but do not turn everyone’s brain to fried eggs. They’re like fast food, except that fast food takes longer to kill you and is legal.” For Pauline Kael of the “New Yorker,” Van Sant’s films are “an antidote to wholesomeness,” because they manage to achieve a controlled style out of the random and the careless. Indeed, “Drugstore Cowboy” was an antidote to the naïve John Hughes youth movies, such as “Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and others, starring the brat pack. It was also a counterpoint to such yuppie films as “Less Than Zero,” made in the late 1980s, about rich upper class youths.

The National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) named ”Drugstore Cowboy” the Best Picture of 1989, Van Sant as Best Director, and his idiosyncratic scenario as Best Screenplay. The scenario was also honored by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Van Sant was the surprise winner of the NSFC over such promising talents as Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, who that year made breakthrough films, “Do the Right Thing” and “sex, lies and videotape,” respectively. Both films played at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, and “sex, lies and videotape” won the Festival’s top jury award, the Palme d’Or. A major contender for the Spirit Awards (the Oscars for indies), “Drugstore Cowboy” swept many kudos: screenplay, male lead (Dillon), supporting male (LeGros) and cinematography (Robert Yeoman).

Commercially, the movie grossed $4.7 million in its initial theatrical release, an impressive figure for an American indie, but not vis-a-vis its considerable budget of $7 million. Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” was made for $1.2 million and grossed $25 million, and Spike Lee’s debut cost much less, earning over $7 million. But the picture did well later, in ancillary markets, on Video and DVD. More important than box-office grosses was the critical acclaim. “Drugstore Cowboy” furthered Van Sant’s reputation as a gifted director who can make reasonably accessible indies. It also helped revitalize the career of Matt Dillon, who would appear in Van Sant’s “To Die For,” in 1995.