Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Directed by Gus Van Sant

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In Drugstore Cowboy a small gang of four junkies in Portland fight to survive and to get high.  They are a little group of outlaws with no intent to do harm but who will do whatever it takes to feel extraordinary.

Led by the charismatic Bob (Matt Dillon), they have a certain charm that thinly conceals the desperate throws of their addiction.  As it is, however, they still manage to feel the sought after high, and though Bob’s narration tells us they’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms, we never quite see the full extent of that suffering.

In his films Gus Van Sant respects his characters and handles them with a sensitivity that can go too far, but not here (an example of too much sensitivity might be Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot).  So that means that while we follow a group of thieving addicts whose behavior gets a cop shot, we’re always seeing the world through their point of view.  The life Bob, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), Nadine (Heather Graham) and Rick (James Le Gros) lead is quite romantic, despite or because of their relative poverty.

Because they don’t have much money, and because they’re never that far from withdrawal there is an alluring immediacy to the lives they live.  Their drugstore robberies are almost ritualistic, and when they go well, as they often must considering they’re not behind bars, they celebrate in a communal, albeit drug-fueled, manner.

Bob is quite the spiritual figure.  Though we see how his mother fears and loathes what he’s become, most of the people who surround him have a strong admiration for who he is and what he does.  This is, of course, the Manson Family to his Charles Manson, the junkies who depend on his leadership.  At one point Bob tells us, “Diane was my wife. I loved her, and she loved dope. So we made a good couple.”

But there’s also Gentry (James Remar), a cop who has been trying to bust Bob for a while now, at least long enough to develop a sort of Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner relationship with him which turns into the now trope-ish cop and robber relationship of movies like Heat (Pacino-De Niro), The Dark Knight (Batman-the Joker) and even the recent Clint Eastwood movie The Mule, in which the trope is so thick it’s almost a parody.

In these stories there is made to seem a thin line between the two characters, as if their opposite sides of the law are casual choices.  In their pursuit and evasion of each other they begin to play a ritualistic game, one imbued with a different kind of meaning than if you were in a one off foot chase from the cops.  By the end of the film they will find some kind of common ground and share a respect for the experience they went through together, as if recognizing that they need each other to live and find meaning in how they live.

Later in the third act Bob will spend much of his time, now clean, with a priest named Tom (William S. Burroughs).  This is an elderly man from Bob’s childhood who, like him, is deep in the throws of addiction.  He becomes a spiritual teacher for Bob, though one who actively feeds (or tries to feed) his opiate addiction.  When Bob comes into a sudden windfall of pills (thanks to his old pals), he will offer them to the old man as a gift, and despite the obvious dangers of such drug use, we will see it as an act of kindness, just as it will be received as an act of kindness.

Bob is such a positive figure mostly because he decides to clean himself up, particularly in a moment in which he’s not obligated to do so.  After another’s overdose and an almost comical close call with a series of police officers, Bob tells Dianne that he’s going to head back home and get sober.  She’s livid, and this decision, as he surely knows, means they’re over.

Later he will tell her that he made a promise to God that should he evade the law one final time, he would express his gratitude by cleaning himself up and living the straight and narrow.  In many such movies, this would be a great challenge, a sobering reminder of a certain darkness that encroaches on the edge of daily life, but where Bob once spoke of such darkness, later he waxes poetic about mundane life, describing to Dianne all that he finds so majestic about his dumpy apartment.

With such an apparently positive, or at lease serene, outlook comes perhaps a predictable belief in superstitions.  When Nadine mentions a dog, Bob crumbles and relays the story of when he and Dianne had a dog that got them arrested and was then put down by the police.  Riled up because every tv channel seems to be showing a dog, Bob tells Nadine that he has just placed a 30 day hex on them.  Soon, after she again toys with what he deems unforgivable, she will be dead.

So we’re made to believe in the same things Bob believes in.  The film reflects this subjectivity so that we experience his highs (pretty effectively) and then we understand his paranoia.

It’s Bob faith in his own superstitions that gets him clean.  Most junkies, it seems, would ride the highs to the moon and the lows to six feet under, but even though Bob’s fortunes turn midway through the film, he is deeply indebted to his internal code and follows through.

In the end, however, Bob will pay a price for his sins, much like the characters of a movie like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).  In these films, and certainly with this one, there is a cinematic cosmic/karmic force, much like the one Bob already subscribes to, which says that a character must pay for his or her actions.  You see it too, most similarly, in In Bruges (2008), which ends much as this one does, with the main character on a stretcher, narrating with optimism about his place in the world, hoping he makes it to see another day but understanding why he might not.

Up Next: Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town (2017), Hal (2018), The Odd Couple (1968)

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