Drugstore Cowboy: Van Sant’s Masterpiece?

drugstore_cowboy_poster_gus_van_santEarning acclaim beyond the festival circuit, “Mala Noche” soon attracted Hollywood attention, and Gus Van Sant was courted by the major studios, such as Universal.  He pitched some ideas (which later became I dies, such as “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho”), but the established companies showed no interest.




Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, in 1989, was a logical follow-up to “Mala Moche,” focusing on a gang of junkies who rob pharmacies to support their drug-induced lifestyle. Efforts to secure Hollywood backing for the project were thwarted by his nonjudgmental approach to drugs and addiction.  It was, after all, the era of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” a hollow sloganeering prescription for drug-free America.

The scenario 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, which favored more personal, offbeat, and unorthodox films (Alan Rudolph’s “Choose Me,” in 1984), put up the necessary $6 million. The project was produced by Laurie Parker, who had a track record with such indie titles as Spike Lee’s striking 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 the self-financed $25,000 budget of “Mala Noche” to the ultimately increased budget of $7 million was not just impressive, it also brought about 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.

drugstore_cowboy_9_matt_dillon_kelly_lynch_gus_van_santVan Sant was attracted to the gritty quality of the writing and to the subjective perspective of the central con man, who is also the narrator.  Co-penned by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, a journalist for the “Oregonian,” the script was based on unpublished novel by James Fogle, an inmate at Washington State Penitentiary who had essayed to write his own memoirs.  Fogle claimed that the lead, Bob Hughes, was a composite character of several drugs thieves, but others felt that it incorporated many episodes of Fogle’s own experience.  To ensure authenticity, Van Sant ran his ideas by Jim Carroll, the former drug abuser and then author of “The Basketball Diaries,” a critically acclaimed memoir about drug culture, 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 portray drug addicts in graphic mode. Van Sant would produce Larry Clark’s feature directing debut, “Kids,” in 1995.

Remarkably, Van Sant succeeded in avoiding any kind of preaching an anti-drug platform, or turning the script 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.”  In fact, for Van Sant, “Drugstore Cowboy” was an anti-drug story: “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.”

drugstore_cowboy_8_matt_dillon_gus_van_santNonetheless, Van Sant felt strong enough pressures to make 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 new historical setting eliminated the specter of AIDS and the effects of crack, the 1980s lethal drug. The subject matter 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. “Drugstore Cowboy” makes no references to politics, or the outside reality of the Vietnam War, Columbia University Student Revolution, Kent State Massacre, or President Nixon.[iv] Van Sant also turned Bob into a more sympathetic character by adding to the tale self- redemption. In the last chapter, Bob decides 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.

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 humanizing Bob’s character.  Dillon, then 25, was a 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.  As much as his director, Dillon needed a good movie to put him back on the map.

drugstore_cowboy_7_matt_dillon_gus_van_santA chronicle of the (mis)adventures of petty criminals, “Drugstore Cowboy” provides an inside view of the drug world and its inhabitants, 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 a quartet of bumbling outlaws that exists as a nuclear family. The clan is made up of Bob, his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), the 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 naïve and younger, in their early 20s.  In Many ways, the younger  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 pedestrian with a compliment of her hat, stopping by a water fountain, then heading into the pharmacy he plans to rob.  He is followed by the gang’s members, who enter one by one in order 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 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, we see his subjective reverie in which various objects float, spoons, toys, airplanes, cows, and chickens, reflecting Bob’s childlike and childish nature.  It’s Van Sant’s homage to “The Wizard of Oz,” the MGM fantasy film that has influenced every director in this book (and many others, like David Lynch).The druggies practice their craft, robbing drugstores and hospital pharmacies for only 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.

drugstore_cowboy_6_matt_dillon_kelly_lynch_gus_van_santEarly on, they are visited by David (Max Perlman), a young junkie who lives nearby.  Feeling superior, Bob treats David with contempt; there would be grave repercussions for his mistreatment.  Occasionally, the gang’s motel rooms 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, determined to 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 peering into the residents’ bedrooms.  Later, when Gentry beats up Bob in retaliation, Bob 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 his mother (Grace Zabriskie), not because he misses her but for practical reasons, to get his remaining clothes or steal cash from her.  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.

drugstore_cowboy_3_matt_dillon_heather_graham_gus_van_santUnfortunately, 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.  Holding that Nadine’s death is an omen, 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 an 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 hands in to the more appreciative Tom.  Their farewell is decidedly unsentimental: Dianne tells Bob that she is now working for Rick, who is also her lover.  Shortly after, David breaks into Bob’s room, and when Bob claims that he has no drugs, David shoots him.  Earlier, Bob had interrupted a street fight, stopping David from harassing a crying teenager.  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 Bonnies and Clydes. However, Van Sant takes a more satirical approach, emphasizing their foolish petty crimes, the fact that their robberies involve low stakes. They steal drugs for self-consumption, not for profit, and some of their adventures end as shambles. Their lives are devoted to pleasure, and their activities are subsumed under the goal of, as Bob says “getting happy and staying happy.”


A comedy of the absurd, defined by expressionist visuals and a surreal tone, “Drugstore Cowboy” is humorous rather than grim, as it could have been in the hands of another director. Van Sant makes the story less bleak, without sacrificing the spirit of the original source material.  The text’s offbeat absurdity derives from his insights into the peculiarities of the junkie subculture, and from Van Sant’s idiosyncratic direction. Observed from the P.O.V. of the junkies, the film depicts 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 are immoral but not amoral.  In fact, far from being unprincipled.  They live by a strict code of ethics 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 signals trouble.  All cats, not just black, are bad. Talking about dogs is bad; there’s a flashback to the tragic ending of Bob’s own dog.”


Van Sant avoids preaching a hypocritical anti-drug message, maintaining 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 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 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 frenetic life of petty crime and drugs defines a sub-culture that’s both specific and restrictive. 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.”


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 a novice, Nadine tries to assimilate into the group (too) quickly.  She insists on getting her fair share after her first heist, and demands to shoot up, just like the rest of the clique.


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, gravitas, and acting, Burroughs elevates the junkie priest to another level; initially, it had been written as a pathetic loser. Burroughs’ interpretation, however, makes the role bigger and stronger, and in some ways throws the film off balance, because the other actors engage in more naturalistic performances.


If Almodovar and Haynes tend to defamiliarize the familiar aspects of life, Van Sant likes to show ordinary objects in extraordinary ways, reflecting the protagonists’ skewed vision, particularly when they are high.  In Bob’s reveries, objects float on and off the screen, or spin against swirling clouds whose colors change. After burying Nadine, Bob experiences another vision, in which hats are flying in front of his eyes.  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, and so on. Often punctuating the end of scenes, they are used as abstraction of visuals that reflect Bob’s fertile mind and distorted memory, but also express the director’s idiosyncratic vision.


The careful choice of décor contributes in establishing the film’s offbeat tone.  In “Drugstore Cowboy,” green is the dominant color: There are green cars, green clothes for Dianne, green furniture and green walls, not to mention the natural green of the Pacific Northwest.[v]  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, 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, and plaid slacks, and the director makes sure that we observe his brown shoes, in lieu of the customary 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’ melodic “The Israelites,” which injects joy, vitality and continuity, as the band moves from one location to another.


The critic Paul Andrews singled out the quality of “Drugstore Cowboy” for its blend of “absurdist humor with near-documentarian realism.”[vi]  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.[vii] Indeed, “Drugstore Cowboy” was an antidote to John Hughes naïve 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, made in the late 1980s, such as “Less Than Zero,” 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 original scenario 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, both of whom made breakthrough films that year, “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, but earned over $7 million.  Nonetheless, the picture performed better in ancillary markets, on Video and DVD.  More important than box-office gross was the ccritical acclaim: “Drugstore Cowboy” furthered Van Sant’s reputation as a gifted director who can make accessible indies. It also helped revitalize the career of Matt Dillon, who would appear in Van Sant’s “To Die For,” in 1995.


Films with similar themes or issues often appear in cycles, as was manifest with the new black cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the work of Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing” in 1989) and John Singleton (“Boyz N’ the Hood” in 1991) and others, energized by the broader socio-political contexts of American society at that time. Similarly, specific factors have affected gay cinema of the 1990s, prime among which was the AIDS epidemic. For years, there was fearful avoidance of dealing with the AIDS phenomenon, then controversy erupted over the kind of “morally responsible yet realistic” entertainment that artists should be making about AIDS. As I showed in, this dilemma became clear in the reception of Haynes’ “Poison,” which came out in 1991, the same year that Van Sant made “My Own Private Idaho.”


The exploration in “Drugstore Cowboy” of young hustlers living in society’s outer fringes, as well as that film’s Portland settings, are also manifest in the critically acclaimed “My Own Private Idaho,” arguably Van Sant’s strongest, most ambitious feature. Once again, Van Sant chose a subjective perspective, telling the narrative from the P.O.V. of the protagonist, Mike Waters, an apocaleptic street hustler. In earlier versions, Van Sant entertained other titles for his film, such as “In a Blue Funk” and “Minions of the Moon.” The film’s ultimate moniker derives from a song lyric by the rock group B-52, and also from Van Sant’s trips to Idaho. He has always regarded Idaho as more than just a geographic place—a state of mind, a refuge taken for comfort.