“Drugstore Cowboy” found beauty in the gutter
Gus Van Sant's second feature is a stylish but sensitive and non-judgmental look at drug addiction.
June 4, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.


One of the most striking elements of Gus Van Sant’s second film, Drugstore Cowboy, is its lack of moralizing. It’s not as though the film is unaware of the risks Bob (Matt Dillon), his “wife” Dianne (Kelly Lynch), and the rest of his crew, Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), are taking every time they shoot up. Nor does it ignore what their hunger for drugs drives them to do, and how that puts them in the sights of the particularly stubborn Detective Gentry (James Remar). It also doesn’t ignore how dangerous other junkies, like speed enthusiast but up for whatever else you got David (Max Perlich), can be.

However, it presents these realities as matter-of-fact. The movie never pauses to offer a lesson about the dangers of drugs. It also never tries to make a point about legal overreach, or the limitations of rehab services, or any other flawed system Bob and his friends encounter. Instead, Van Sant reveals the events with an almost documentary-like dedication to not taking sides.

Thus, the film gets its juice instead from the personalities in their world. By not trying to deliver a message movie, Cowboy is free instead to live with Bob, to ride along with him to his next big score, to sit on the floor as thugs kick his ribs into jagged broken things. The movie treats the characters as its central preoccupation, not their addictions, and the result is refreshing even as the hopelessness becomes impossible to deny.

Van Sant’s work comes across as remarkably mature, especially considering this is only his second time behind the lens. He has an unhurried eye, stylish without being confrontational. His insert shots of items in Bob’s world — the trigger of a revolver, a light bulb as it glows to life, water boiling for tea — ground you in the character’s point of view without denying you the full picture of his life.

One of the most striking elements of Gus Van Sant’s second film, Drugstore Cowboy, is its lack of moralizing.

The way Van Sant works within his budget is also interesting. In order to capture the strange phantasmagoria of the nods, the director pastes static discordant images against a partly cloudy sky. He blurs the shot and returns to focus. He closes the world until Dillon’s spaced out gaze fills the screen. It’s cheap, simple, and surprisingly effective. By keeping the drug high just a slight step left of our reality, Van Sant is able to capture both why drugs hold such sway, and the undeniable anxiety that always pulses just under the surface, hiding in the comedown.

On the script side of things, Van Sant — collaborating with Daniel Yost on the screenplay — laces the relatively benign world of these Portland drug addicts in the early 70s with romantic observation. In what feels like a warmup for My Private Idaho’s full out Shakespearean take on low-level criminal dialogue, Dillon waxes poetic from start to finish. It adds to Cowboy’s sense of physical and dimensional disconnect. Bob and his crew are not part of a society, and drug themselves til they feel like part of a different world. It only makes sense that they talk just 3 degrees different than us.

In Dillon the director found an excellent accomplice for his second film. With black shiny hair cascading around his face and impossible cheekbones, he comes across like a matinee idol version of Mala Noche’s Doug Cooeyate. Throughout the film, Dillon lets just enough jitter leak into his laconic philosophizing to clue us into the fact that he’s a man who’s become aware of just how fake the patter he’s selling everyone else is. In the hushed world of Cowboy, Dillon’s slightly elevated energy pulls him into the foreground, an undeniable figure in the fuzzy grey of 70’s Portland.

As the film winds down, however, what sticks with you above all else is not Dillon’s look or energy. Nor is William S. Burroughs‘ pitch perfect improvisation as Tom the Priest, a man of God who worships at the altar of downers. It isn’t even young Heather Graham. No, it’s the dark as pitch ending, one that suggests the sober life is a paper-thin protection from total relapse. An ending that Dillon narrates with an almost celebratory air, even as everything he embraced is being wiped out. It’s Cowboy’s greatest trick, one that mirrors the drugs it revolves around: a moment of joy distracting you from the crushing cruelty of reality.

Drugstore Cowboy Trailer: