Review: Drugstore Cowboy (1989)


Hey, it’s Heather Graham, back when she had some meat on her bones and thus was much cuter!

Screenplay By: William S. Burroughs, Gus Van Sant & Daniel Yost
Directed By: Gus Van Sant

Bob, Dianne, Rick and Nadine are pitiful, pitiful creatures. Gus Van Sant realizes this, yet he understands the damage that could be done by attaching emotion to them. He resists the urge to demonize or glorify them, instead he opts to show their drug addled lives as they are. The group thinks they are living the high life, pardon the pun, but they are stretched out and miserable. They exist for their next score, nothing else matters and nothing else will matter to them as long as drugs are a part of their lives. It’s hard to watch human beings willingly destroy their lives, and Van Sant doesn’t take it easy on his viewer, but he presents the saga of this group in such a way that we have no choice but to continue watching.

When Bob enters rehab I noticed Van Sant flexing his storytelling and directing muscle for the first time. Not in a bad way mind you, but for the first time I noticed how he was using his camera to explore the effect of drugs. Prior to getting clean the scenes are cut shorter and move faster, they resemble the quick high that the group is perpetually experiencing. Once the group is gone and we are left with Bob as our sole vassal, the picture slows down. Scenes are longer, the cuts are less frequent and every moment feels slower than the last. Life is eternally slow for Bob at this point, a constant struggle, and the camera shows the viewer that through subtle manipulation of space and time.

Lately I’ve noticed that I don’t delve into breaking down acting performances as much as I used to. It’s not that I don’t notice the performances, instead I have begun to tie the performances into the material. In Drugstore Cowboy I know that Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch turn in some grade A performances. Yet, I find myself blending said performances into the overall story and direction. I feel the transient nature in Dianne when she comes back to visit Bob, but instead of breaking it down through performance I break it down through story. This has been a long winded way for me to tell you that I recognize the acting prowess on display, but for my own reasons I have chosen to not focus on it.

If there was one aspect of Drugstore Cowboy that I would modify in some way it would have to be the police subplot. It’s not that it’s a bad addition to the film, rather it’s an incomplete one. The entire cop storyline is underdeveloped and undernourished and when Van Sant jumps back to it towards the end it failed to grab me because it felt like a part of another movie. It’s a small thing, but some tightening up in that area would have benefited the movie.

This was my first exposure to earlier Van Sant, and I can’t say I was let down in any way. I can see the early flashes of brilliant camera work that will come to define Van Sant, as well as the willingness to play around with storytelling through his camera. It’s not a complete movie, but it is a great movie. Van Sant takes a pitiful and wretched group of characters and weaves a compelling tale about their exploits. Drugstore Cowboy is darkly comedic, sad, honest, and painful. Most of all Drugstore Cowboy is a great film, one well worth taking the time to see.




3 responses to “Review: Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

  1. Great review of one of Gus Van Sant’s most important movies. I too liked the movie for the aspects you’ve mentioned here – the fact that the group was neither demonised nor glorifies, but shown just as they are. Not many movies on addicts can claim to be able to have done that. Also, your observation regarding the deliberate slowing down of the narrative from the drug days to the drug-free days was really spot on. Though I never that when I’d watched the movie, I realise that now that you said it.

  2. mcarteratthemovies

    My favorite line from this movie is when Matt Dillon talks about how so many people use drugs to escape all the little pointless things like tying shoes. Insightful stuff.

  3. Shubhajit – Thanks for the kind comments.

    M – That line is an example of a truth that hurts. We’d all love to think that drugs are used to escape from the big things, but often that’s not the case.

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