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DRUGSTORE COWBOY (director/writer: Gus Van Sant; screenwriters: Daniel Yost/based on the novel by James Fogle; cinematographer: Robert Yeoman; editor: Curtiss Clayton; music: Elliot Goldenthal; cast: Matt Dillon (Bob Hughes), Kelly Lynch (Dianne), Heather Graham (Nadine), James LeGros (Rick), William S. Burroughs (Tom the defrocked priest),Beah Richards (Drug Counselor), Grace Zabriskie (Bob’s mother), Max Perlich (David), James Remar (Gentry, Policeman); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Karen Murphy/Nick Wechsler; Artisan Entertainment; 1989)
“Forthright junkie film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Gus Van Sant’s (“Good Will Hunting”/”Elephant”/”Gerry”)dark humored, original and forthright junkie film is his breakthrough picture. It doesn’t preach against drugs, but simply clues us in through an insider’s look at junkies that some folks take drugs because they enjoy getting high and it gives them an easy escape from responsibility. Just watching these addled addicts, should be enough of a reason for most not to go down their bumpy path. Writers Van Sant and Daniel Yost base it on prison inmate James Fogle’s autobiographical novel (he’s serving a 22-year-sentence in Washington state for the crimes depicted in the pic). It’s set in 1971, in Portland, Oregon.

Bob (Matt Dillon), his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham) are junkies who support their habit by robbing pharmacies for the drugs and not the money, in a creative way. One of their heist tricks is for Nadine to pretend to suffer an epileptic fit on the floor of the drugstore to create a diversion while Bob makes his way behind the prescriptioncounter to help himself with as many pill vials as he can carry.

The leader of the gang is the articulate Bob, Dianne is supportive of hubby except when it comes to his impotence, Rick is the dumb enforcer and Nadine is the naive underaged girlfriend of Rick’s. The gang lives in isolation, where they pop pills and inject an assortment of drugs and choose not to hang-out with other addicts. They follow Bob’s illogical logic and his superstitions, living only to go from one high to another. Bob’s latest knuckle-headed scheme is to keep them constantly high, as he has them send their stash ahead of them via Greyhound bus as they wander across the Pacific Northwest looking to hit drug stores and hospitals. The gang is pursued by the relentless narc Gentry (James Remar), who would love to nail the low-lifes.

The gritty indie film gives us a realistic look at streetlife for the unfashionable junkie set. It’s a wonder that such a downbeat story is a fun watch and that it also packs an understated anti-drug message that probably resonates more than those serious moralizing druggie flicks and those that romanticize the drug cult. Though I doubt if it completely got it right why one becomes an addict, it got a lot of it right.

It was also a gas to see the beat author William Burroughs in the role of a junkie ex-priest, who Bob meets at a detox hostel and in his small role stands out as the voice who articulates the film’s offbeat contemporary sociopolitical stance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”