Once again is Gus Van Sant’s ability to make the lives of ne’er-do-wells seem as poetic as the ones lived by the lovers of 1973’s Badlands. As evidenced by the more or less kitchen sink real succession of Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant sees the beauty in being young and stupid just as much as he sees the horrors that come from being young and stupid. On one hand are victims of those adjectives carefree and breathless, their fuck-it ‘tudes almost sexy in their rebellion. But on another can we feel the melancholy that comes when witnessing vitality being wasted.
Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy serves as a fitting middle-ground for the films preceding and succeeding it, conjoining Mala Noche’s grittiness with My Own Private Idaho’s whirling expansiveness. I’m pressed to decide whether it romanticizes the life of crime Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker perfected back in their heydays or if it condemns it — perhaps it’d be especially accurate to call its first couple acts sinuously rose-colored and its finale bitingly honest. But to bill it as anything less than masterfully sympathetic or impeccably perceptive would be a blister on the taint of the naturalism Van Sant so marvelously crafts.
Drugstore Cowboy follows the lives of a group of junkies led by Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), a small-time crook with a sixth-grade education and the intrepid ambition of Thomas Crown. Because a life of predictable blue-collar work isn’t much Bob and company’s favored métier, days are spent traveling through the Pacific Northwest doing drugs and robbing minute marts. Difficult it is to tell if his faithful girlfriend Dianne (Kelly Lynch) is with him out of love or efficient loot nabbing, or if sidekicks Rick (James LeGros) and the teenage Nadine (Heather Graham) would look at him like their very own Charlie Manson if he weren’t so adept at filling their druggy voids.
But all would prefer not to see the world for what it really is — enabling one another and continuing a vicious cycle of self-medicated destruction is much more desirable. That is until a robbery goes wrong and Bob’s left wondering if he can continue imitating Clovis Michael Poplin for the rest of his so-called life. (Plot twist: he can’t.)
Drugstore Cowboy is based upon James Fogle’s autobiographical novel of the same name, anyway, and the story, like the film, tells of his trials and tribulations as a perceived drugstore cowboy and his later grapplings with getting clean and starting his life anew. The movie gives those conflicts with sense of self thrilling urgency: though Van Sant employs a near anomalous tone toward the film’s beginning to mimic the tizzy of faux euphoria the characters find themselves constantly in as a result of their highness, the major dramatic shift that comes with Bob’s climactic epiphany is sobering and unexpectedly impactful.
As the latter, Dillon is magnificent. Bob’s a man who’s been lying to himself for most of his life, his denial and his favoritism for the spectacular now detrimental to his personal growth. As we watch him coming to terms with the mess that is his everyday existence, there’s a crushing fragrance of sadness that roams in the air — we can feel his pain as he realizes that his makeshift family is linked together by addiction and not love, as he realizes that he’s a loser and not the pretty boy with a poor set of decision making skills he undoubtedly has seen himself as for so many years. The emotional nuance Dillon brings to the role is palpable; Bob is an anti-hero impossible not to care a great deal for.
And things are no different for the supporting players: Lynch is a masterful combination of vulnerable and alluring only Scarface’s Elvira could imitate, LeGros’s a genuine embodiment of drugged-out desperation, and Graham, as the doomed little girl lost, conveys a profound wretchedness worthy of a standalone movie besotted with her backstory.
We could watch these characters on their crime spree for hours upon end and never get tired of the illicitness on display — there’s nothing like watching beautiful screw-ups revel in their defiance before karma catches up with them. But unforeseen is the harsh verisimilitude of its final act, and that’s what makes Drugstore Cowboy go from already rousing lovers-on-the-run film homage to cogently mounted quasi-masterpiece. B+