Drugstore Cowboy was the first film I ever saw with a conscious awareness that it had been made in Oregon. It screens tonight as a part of the NW Film Center's Top Down series. The following is an unused essay that I wrote about the film about a year or so ago.
Thurston Moore has spoken of Lou Reed’s tales of junk-addled characters as being especially seductive to people who, like himself, had a relatively sheltered upbringing, something to do with the kind of degradation and darkness that is appealing only to those who are fortunate enough not to experience it. It was my own fascination with such themes that set me up as an ideal viewer of Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature, Drugstore Cowboy. It’s a film that over the years, whenever I stumble upon it on cable, I end up watching the entire thing, dropping more immediate concerns as I’m drawn once more into the curious ebb and flow of its hazy and understated narrative.
The picture, centered around a crew of addict/thieves who go directly to the source, breaking into pharmacies and hospital storerooms for their fix, resists the urge to depict its characters in either clichéd moralistic or nihilistic terms, the usual gold standard for cinematic explorations of junkie experience (see Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm for the moralistic side of things and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream for the “scathing ride through a personal hell” flavor).
Instead, Van Sant positions his characters as willful rebels, thumbing their collective noses at a society that promises freedom but, more often than not, delivers safety in routine, something that becomes all the more ironic when one realizes that Bob (Matt Dillon) and his crew are merely trading one form of routine for another. Still, there is an enchanting rhythm that forms around the adventures of these people, blurring together the days and nights while placing emphasis only upon the events and cycles impacting this cloistered circle of comrades in track-marked arms.
Drugstore Cowboy is Robin Hood without the poor as beneficiary, Oceans Eleven without the organization. In short, it’s a study in self-involvement masquerading, somewhat sporadically, as a heist movie. It depicts a narcissism flowing out of Drugstore’s near singular focus on Bob, his more than healthy sense of superiority in the face of contrary evidence and, eventually, his instinctual attempt to save himself when the going gets rough. Though adapted from James Fogle’s novel of the same name, the film owes more than a small debt to the junkie prose of William S. Burroughs, whose presence in the film, inhabiting the role of Tom the priest as a slow-drawling giver of sage advice, hints at a connection between the piety infused within Burroughs own visions of users in a junk-filled universe and the worldview espoused by Bob throughout the film. There’s a holy center to both Bob’s belief system and junk use in general that neglects acknowledgement of and adherence to social norms, a near-religious fever managing to help Bob float above it all, enabling him to feel as if he’s the only one who understands the game.
And speaking of floating, Van Sant channels some seriously trippy and evocative imagery related to drug use during several key points in the picture, pulling the viewer into a space of surreality without constantly poking us in the eye with these visual inventions every time someone shoots up in the film. There’s the repeated floating objects placed against the cloud-filled Portland skies, representing at various times the oncoming rush of a narcotized state, Bob’s worries about hats on beds and incarceration, and even a slight homage to the discombobulating weightlessness experienced by Dorothy Gale in her journey to Oz. Van Sant also switches up film stocks a few times, nostalgically channeling the good old days, brilliantly using grainy, color Super 8 footage of Bob and his crew as they cavort around the streets of Portland. The exaggerated use of space and tracking shots in the scene where Bob and his estranged wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) part for the final time also springs to mind as one of the many perfectly visualized moments in the film.
To the credit of the filmmakers, the visual technique rarely gets in the way of the storytelling. The universality of that story, the notion Bob forwards when saying that, “most people…they don’t know how they’re going to feel from one moment to the next,” becomes a reasonable, albeit dreadfully flawed, rationalization for the path he and his crew have chosen. We’re all emotional animals, supremely uncomfortable with the unknown, whether it lies outside us or within us. It’s this humane rendering of Bob's disease, posited as a cure for an entirely different and more common illness, that of uncertainty, that makes the film so compelling, ultimately allowing it to transcend genre and stand as a singular piece, not necessarily about addiction as much as life itself.
The NW Film Center's Top Down Rooftop Cinema series presents Drugstore Cowboy on Thursday, August 23rd at 8pm. More info available here.
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