Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough picture, Drugstore Cowboy is a pretty entertaining expose on the life of, well, a drugstore cowboy; a term used by the source autobiography’s author James Fogle to essentially describe himself. Fogle’s experiences provided quite the story, though it might’ve been a little pre-empted seeing as Fogle, instead of going clean like Bob does in the film, would continue his career holding up pharmacies and drugstores along the Pacific Northwest all the way until his death from cancer in 2012. Or maybe the book, and thus the film, was a little bit of wish fulfillment on his part.
Matt Dillon gives a very praiseworthy performance as Bob Hughes, a drug addict who gets by with his motley band of friends robbing drugstores from town to town, so the cops can’t catch up with them. The film basically follows them from score to score, dealing with their interpersonal relationships and how Bob, the ringleader of the gang, seeks to control his operation through superstition and a no-nonsense personality, until something happens that finally scares him straight, which leads him into a new chapter in his life that unfortunately isn’t as far removed from his old lifestyle as he would like. What ultimately makes Drugstore Cowboy work, I think, is the characters, and by extension the actors’ performances of them. The interpersonal dialogue between them as they hopscotch from job to job provides most of the content and the conflict of the film, though there is a particularly amusing side-story in the middle of the film dealing with how Bob takes care of a group of cops who have his place under surveillance. It’s to Van Sant’s credit that the relationships between the characters come off as well as they do, as well as Dillon and the rest of the cast for hitting the right notes at the right times. The cinematography was okay; nothing special, but made some nice use of darkness and shadows when the film’s content would swing in that particular direction. Another special mention should go out to the jazz score, which makes extensive use of the saxophone to give us a “seedy underbelly of America” vibe that Bob and his friends undoubtedly live in, despite the actual setting of the film.
I haven’t seen Van Sant’s first film (this being his second), so I can’t attest as to why this was the breakout film for him as opposed to his earlier work. Really, there’s not a whole lot to this one at surface level, which is usually how breakout films become breakout films. But, and this is the thing with Drugstore Cowboy, if you look under the hood, you’ll find quite a bit to this one, and if I were to posit the one thing that would make this a breakout film for Van Sant, it would be that; that it’s just a really well done film, with standout bits in all the right places. I don’t know how ‘must see’ this one is, but it definitely won’t disappoint should you give it a try. I’d probably prefer Trainspotting and its iconic capturing of the drug scene over this one, but that shouldn’t discount Drugstore Cowboy and all that it does manage to get right, which is an awful lot.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10