One of the few bits of learning I retained from my years as a sleepwalking college student, was a lesson a film class instructor gave us as a lead-in to a section on film noir. He said that one common aspect of those movies was that many of them centered around doomed characters trying to rise in the underworld while fighting the ways of straight society. He mentioned that these antiheroes could often appear to be successfully holding sway over their left-of-center domains for a time, but that they were always destined to be run down to the ground in the end. I don’t know whether 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy should be classified as film noir, and don’t particularly care to argue the point, but I think it powerfully explores that theme my professor detailed as being a signature element of the cinematic genre.
I doubt that many reading this need a detailed description of Drugstore Cowboy’s plot. We all know it’s a study of the alternative lifestyle led by a team of four intravenous drug users in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s. It was the second feature film directed by Gus Van Sant, and really his breakthrough. It is based on the then unpublished autobiographical novel by career druggie and criminal James Fogle, who died in 2012 and was a study in himself (one this writer plans to undertake). It stars Matt Dillon who puts on an absolute tour-de-force in portraying Bob Hughes, the leader of the junkie team. Van Sant, his screenwriting partner Daniel Yost, Dillon, and supporting actor Max Perlich all were nominated for and/or won awards handed out by the likes of the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. In my opinion, they should have won Oscars.