Criterion Prediction #194: Drugstore Cowboy, by Alexander Miller

Title: Drugstore Cowboy

Year: 1989

Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Kelly Lynch, Matt Dillon, Heather Graham, James Le Gros, Max Perlich, James Remar, William Burroughs, Grace Zabriskie

Synopsis: Bob and his crew of dopers cruise around early 1970s Portland, Oregon knocking over pharmacies to fuel their drug addiction. When their local turf gets too hot, they hit the road but their freewheeling existence comes with consequences. The film is inspired by James Fogle’s novel of the same name.

Critique: There’s a perverse fascination that lies at the heart of the people from the straight world, which is why some of the most infamous or financially successful movies tend to wallow in the depravity of drug use through the use of hyperbolic stylistic flourishes and shocking visuals without any insight into the nature of addiction. Therein lies the thin line dividing lesser movies like Spun or Requiem for a Dream from acute treatments of addiction like The Panic in Needle Park, Barfly and Drugstore Cowboy. The latter group have something going for them. These films come from a place of genuine interest and respect. You can feel the filmmakers’ abiding fascination with the people at the heart of these stories. Van Sant’s treatment of Fogle’s then unpublished autobiography is one of tactile expression. There’s a pulse of exhilaration. His direction is excitable but there’s no haughty moralizing, glorification or flakey condemnation. Drugstore Cowboy is a lively film about people who are constantly flirting with death. Van Sant seems to be one of the most instinctive filmmakers. It’s evident throughout his entire body of work that he’s an auteur and yet no two of his movie are alike. However, with his sophomore feature he’s in his element, Portland in the 1970s. The period, peripheral to the production, comes to life unemphatically and the source material guides the narrative. The collective cast are at the top of their game. Dillon has the nervy spontaneity and youthful egoism of a self-styled doper/leader of a crew. His performance fits the profile. You can tell Bob is smart, ambitious, charming and charismatic. It’s just that all of his different energies are used exclusively to get drugs and evade the law. Le Gros is an ideal partner. He’s big, strong, doesn’t ask a lot of questions and, as Bob (Dillon) recalls, is “no stranger to a life of crime.” His relationship with his old lady, Diane, played with fluent ease by Lynch, is summed up perfectly in the opening narration, “Diane was my wife. I loved her and she loved dope. So we made a good couple.” Also, the embodiment of debased innocence is Graham’s Nadine. At first a misleading supporting character, she becomes the narrative crux of the picture.

Van Sant looks at his characters and stories as a precocious humanist, which is why Drugstore Cowboy has aesthetic advantage as opposed to the artistic temperament of, say Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Jonas Akerlund (Spun) or Ted Demme (Blow), who seem to be motivated by a misanthropic form of vulgar exhibitionism that veers on exploitation. When Bob enrolls into a methadone program, he’s asked to explain himself and why he started doing drugs. He simply replies, “Because I like getting high,” which is one of the most honest and personal revelations I can ever recall ever in a movie about opiate. That’s the sincerity that makes Drugstore Cowboy so indelible.

Why It Belongs in the Collection: Van Sant is long overdue for another Criterion release and, in his idiosyncratic filmography, I can’t think of a better title for a spine number.

While favoritism isn’t a qualifier, distribution rights are. The DVD of Drugstore Cowboy was released by Artisan Entertainment, which has been inactive since being absorbed by Lionsgate. However, the movie is originally the product of MGM and, in recent years, we’ve seen an influx of MGM titles grace The Criterion Collection (Europa Europa, Satyricon, Koyaanisqatsi, Thief, etc.). While we’re on the subject of MGM titles, when the hell are we going to see a Blu-ray of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!?

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