Thursday, November 14, 2013

Drug War

Film: Drugstore Cowboy
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Anyone who knows me would not be shocked that my connection to the drug culture is an entirely cinematic one. My last illicit drug experience happened in the 1980s, and if I had to guess, chances are good that said experience was underage drinking. It never did a lot for me (although I was a drinker back in the day). I am substantially uncool when it comes to drugs. Sorry, folks; I come at these films with what I’ve got rather than what you might like me to be. Drugstore Cowboy is all about one aspect of the drug scene in the early 1970s. It is to drugs what Boogie Nights is to the porn industry of the same time.

The drug addicted, superstitious ex-con Bob (Matt Dillon) runs a crew of thieves who specialize in ripping off drugstores. We see this happen as the film opens. The four thieves each enter the store separately. Nadine (Heather Graham) fakes a convulsion in the middle of the store, which attracts the attention. Nadine’s boyfriend Rick (James Le Gros) tries to get more people to focus on Nadine by calling for help. Bob’s wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch) further distracts the pharmacist. While all of this happens, Bob jumps behind the counter and makes off with any drugs he can.

This all goes well, and the crew survives by selling off or trading whatever drugs they don’t want. We see this happen as they come home from their score and a junkie neighbor named David (Max Perlich) attempts to trade some crystal meth for morphine. Nadine puts her foot in things here, which makes Bob angry. We learn that Bob did some time and is still under the thumb of the police, particularly a cop named Gentry (James Remar). When the crew is raided, they decide it is time to move somewhere else.

Bob’s superstitions affect exactly how he acts in all ways. Since he once had a dog that was used to entrap him and send him to prison, even mentioning a dog means no stealing for a month. Placing a hat on a bed puts a hex on him that will only end if something truly terrible happens. Nadine continues to be his biggest problem, and when she is left home on a robbery, she overdoses and dies, leaving the crew with a serious problem. How do they get rid of her body when they are staying at a motel that is set to receive a sheriff’s convention?

Eventually, Bob decides that enough bad luck is enough and he abandons his crew and checks into a methadone clinic and tries to straighten out his life by going straight. Getting out of the life is much easier than staying in it, though, as Bob soon discovers.

This is the kind of film I wish Matt Dillon would make more of. I often feel like he gets roles that were originally intended for other people, but he’s a better actor than that. I like him a lot in this film. He’s easily the best part of everything going on here. Just behind him is the wonderful additional of William S. Burroughs as Tom the junkie priest who was instrumental in getting Bob hooked on drugs as a youth. Now down-and-out and no longer a priest, Tom continues to look for various highs and tries to survive just as much as Bob and his crew do. He, in fact, tries to pull Bob back into the life when Bob is on methadone.

The biggest issue I have here is that Drugstore Cowboy doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. We’re not entirely sure that Bob manages to get out of the junkie lifestyle, we don’t know what’s going to happen to him, or what will happen with his relationship with Dianne. We get no answers here. That may well be appropriate for the subject matter of the film, but it doesn’t make it less frustrating.

Going into a film like Drugstore Cowboy, we want either a story of eventual and ultimate redemption or we want the tragedy. Here, we get neither. Everything ends in flux. Even if this is realistic—and it probably is the most realistic ending possible—this is, ultimately, a film. The lack of resolution makes it feel unfinished.

Regardless of this, it is well worth seeing. It presents our drug-addled heroes not as the derelicts of Trainspotting or as somehow noble, but as people dealing with their life in a very bad way. There are moments of profundity as well. The most telling speech is not Bob explaining the life of a junkie to his drug counselor, but at the end when he rightly says that most people don’t know how they’ll feel, but a junkie always does. All he has to do is look at the label on the bottles.

Why to watch Drugstore Cowboy: A more palatable Scarface and Matt Dillon in a great role.
Why not to watch: I’m not sure it really goes anywhere.


  1. From your description of it, this sounds like a fucking awesome film. How the hell did I miss this? I vaguely remember seeing the movie posters somewhere back in the late 80s... either that, or I saw the cover on a VHS box at Errol's or Blockbuster Video.

    I agree that Matt Dillon can shine in the right roles. I loved his turn in "There's Something About Mary." He may well have been the best thing about that movie; his smarminess (especially after the dental work) was absolutely, hilariously convincing.

    And this was a Gus Van Sant movie, no less...!? "Good Will Hunting" is one of my favorites, as you'll recall from that movie meme you sent me ages ago.

    1. I think you'd dig this completely. You might even be happier with the non-resolution than I was.

      With an actual ending I could sink my teeth into, this would probably be my favorite film of this month. Even without it, it's in contention.

  2. It's been a while since I saw this, but I was left with the impression that he got straight. I'm not sure why, though.

    His superstition about not putting a hat on a bed was something I had never heard of, so I figured it was just something made up for the film. Since then, though, I've seen at least two other films that mentioned the same superstition.

    The scene trying to get rid of the body was a tense one.

    And how cute was Heather Graham back when she was starting out? I remember first seeing her in License to Drive with the Coreys.

    1. Oh, and I forget to start the countdown:



      See, it's sort of implied that he cleaned up, but the last lines of the film are about how excited he is to be checking in to the largest pharmacy around. The door is wide open for him to end up right back where he started.

      I'm not sure of the source of the "hat on the bed" superstition, but it seems to be a common one. Heather Graham was quite the cutie in this film. She looked about half her age, though.

      One of my favorite parts of this film was the hiding of the body in the attic above the motel. It might not be realistic in any sense, but it was a great moment.

      Regarding the countdown, I'm hoping to finish just before Thanksgiving.

  3. This was the first time I ever heard about a hat on a bed meaning bad luck. It's also in Shadow of a Doubt, The Great Gabbo (with Erich von Stroheim) and I think I've seen it elsewhere.

    Drugstore Cowboy was my favorite movie for a while. I saw it in the theater three times when it first came out and I saw it at the revival house a few times after that. I haven't seen it in a long time because I got used to seeing it on a big screen and so watching it on TV just doesn't cut it.

    Burroughs is amazing. I was already a fan of his writing and I think the main reason I saw Drugstore Cowboy in the first place was because I heard Burroughs was in it.

    1. I don't understand superstitions like the hat on the bed at all. It's a great character quirk, though.

      There's a lot to like in this film. I'm even coming around to appreciating the ending more than I did when I watched it.