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 It is based on the then unpublished autobiographical novel by career druggie and criminal James Fogle, who died in 2012 and was a study in himself (one this writer plans to undertake).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.
There are so many laudatory aspects of this movie that I’m at a loss in knowing where to begin in praising it. There’s Dillon’s commanding performance, which I’ve mentioned. There are the adrenaline rush-making scenes that follow Hughes and his crew as they rob pharmacies and hospitals in search of the goods to make up their next fix. There’s Dali-worthy trippy segments, when we view Hughes’s hallucinatory visions after he’s taken injections of junk. There’s William S. Burroughs’s presence, which could have been just some token junkie hipster credibility fodder but adds an entertaining character to the story. There’s laughably insane parts, like when Hughes spouts off on his superstition-infused worldview, which could only make sense to himself and other druggies. There’s saddening bits, such as when Hughes and his girlfriend (expertly played by Kelly Lynch) drop in on Hughes’s neurotic, God-fearing mother (portrayed by Grace Zabriskie, whom many might know from her similar role as Laura Palmer’s mother on Twin Peaks.) There’s the moving segment wherein Hughes gets spooked off of the lifestyle and aims to go straight. The film has an excellent soundtrack, and the songs add something to the scenes they play over, rather than just being a case of the director showing off what’s in his record collection. There’s kitschy aspects, such as the groovy clothing worn by Dillon and co-star James Le Gros – threads indie boys of today would drool over – but the film never stoops to being period-piece novelty. I could go on.
Drugstore Cowboy is a hipster’s movie that never labors at being hip. It goes inside the world of a few desperate people who have taken an escape route from the workaday world, only to become beholden to forces that most would find more daunting than the challenges we face in doing what it takes to get by and pay the bills. The story is as believable as it is wild. The film holds up to repeated viewings. My college instructor could have shown it to us just after giving the talk on movies about people who step outside the bounds of “normal” society and attempt to exist in a way of life that goes against the grain of the rest of the world.
I’ll close with a few comments about Fogle’s novel, which I am just now reading. It’s an excellent book, and really the movie is so faithful to it that it’s a little anticlimactic to read it once you’ve seen the film. Van Sant and the cast did all kinds of things to make the movie its own powerful document, separate from the book, but honestly every classic line from the film comes straight out of Fogle’s text. The only gripe I have with the book is that Fogle too often told us what the characters were thinking and feeling, rather than just letting us see all that through their words and actions. But it’s a fine novel by a writer who actually led the existence depicted through Hughes’s character in the movie (Fogle was still robbing pharmacies – and getting caught at it – right up to his death). The novel should be seen as a classic artistic exploration of the drug user’s experience, on a par with titles like Burroughs’s Junkie, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, etc.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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