Gus Van Sant's sophomore effort is a reference-worthy entry into two separate, though occasionally linked, genres: the outlaw road movie and the drug film. Its title works on both levels. The term "drugstore cowboy" is an idiom for those who get high on prescription medication, and the film's protagonist, for a time anyway, has the swagger and rugged quality of a cowboy. What outlaw and addict movies often share are characters who generally don't see themselves as bad people, who certainly don't strive to be bad people, yet they just can't help but make a bad situation worse.
In Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant follows a ragtag group of users who get their kicks (and their next hit) from knocking off pharmacies. At the head of the group is Bob (Matt Dillon), a reckless yet cautiously superstitious thief who organizes his raids around perceived changes in luck. When he's "hot," he will rob any place, anywhere, any time of day, no matter the chances; when he's cold, he can barely leave his house from worry. He's married to his high-school sweetheart, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), though what romance might have existed between them faded long ago.
Bob and Dianne form an immediate dialectic that changes over the course of the film but still defines the contrasting moods of Van Sant's script. Bob lives for the thrill of the chase; whenever Dianne broaches the subject of sex, Bob changes the subject to the next heist. (In fairness, I'd imagine that drugged-up sex doesn't stimulate nearly as much as a hit). Dianne, on the other hand, just wants the end result. The effort of planning and carrying out a raid is the price she has to pay for her happiness.
In lieu of children, Bob and Dianne "raise" two younger junkies, Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham in an early role). They look after each other because they need each other to pull off the robberies, and the group becomes a makeshift, thoroughly dysfunctional family. That dynamic gives Drugstore Cowboy an edge that most other outlaw/drug movies didn't have at the time, a dynamic that was promptly diluted to an oversimplified essence and injected into most subsequent stories of addicts.
But that's not nearly the only aspect that films like Spun or Requiem For a Dream plunder from this incredible work. Van Sant doesn't use dizzying editing sprees to put us in the mind of the addict, but his close-ups and sound distortion bear an open influence on future drug movies. We see an extreme close-up of a needle pumping an Rx cocktail into an arm as the soundtrack warps and bends through the liquid drugs.
The special care taken with these shots, compared to the ennui of the scenes in between hits, prominently displays the priorities and desires of these characters. Dillon subverts the teen idol into which he'd been made throughout the '80s with Bob, making him into a charismatic rebel who is slowly revealed to be a hollow wretch.
The worm turns when Bob visits his mother. Where we've seen him up until this point as a cocky thief who proves a strange sort of leader, suddenly Bob stands withering as his mother, without ever raising her voice, refuses to let her son in the house. She clearly loves him, but she knows that Bob will steal anything that isn't nailed down the second he gets inside, and Bob just stands there and takes it, because he knows it's true. At that moment, the film morphs from a distanced, almost fun look at the world of prescription addiction into a tragedy.
The tragedy multiplies when Nadine overdoses, leaving the other three with a corpse to rid themselves of just as the motel they're staying at is swarmed by police attending a sheriff convention. That sounds like the makings of macabre comedy, but Van Sant brings out the despair and the urgency of the situation, not the cheap setup; the only irony to be found here is of the bitter variety. Tellingly, the survivors are just as concerned with how this affects their hits as they are with the body.
Nadine's death gives Bob a moment of clarity, though, and he pledges to go to rehab and clean himself up. Neither Dianne nor the cops who constantly trail Bob believe him, and Dianne lashes out at the very idea of sobriety. So enveloped in her world, in which the only comfort comes from drugs, she simply doesn't understand the desire to cut out that one node of happiness. She even visits Bob in rehab with a large sack filled with goodies like a perverse Halloween haul, hoping to lure him back to the darkness.
Simultaneously countering and supporting Dianne's argument is the appearance of a defrocked priest from Bob's past who shows up at the same facility. In his prime he would share his heroin with all the youth of the neighborhood who needed a fix, and now he's a bent frame, bones visible from behind skin. In the sort of hotel that only addicts and prostitutes frequent, he lectures Bob on the coming crackdown on drugs led by the "right-wingers," yet his haunting presence does nothing but confirm the mindset of those who wish to take the substances that enslave him away. The priest is played by beat author William S. Burroughs, reflecting his own past as an addict and, with every cough and drawn out, ragged word, conveys a man stuck in purgatory, forever chained to his addiction as penance.
Van Sant's film, like the best of outlaw and druggie movies, presents its characters with neither glorification nor condemnation. But neither does he pull back until he observes his characters through a removed filter of artistic curiosity. He places the camera directly inside this hellacious world of crushing ennui, where the drugs do not, as in Requiem For a Dream, offer momentary escape but simply deaden these blank fools further to blind them to reality. In Bob and his quest for sobriety we see the hope of the addict; in Dianne the crushing illogic that binds them to their world forever. Van Sant's ability to capture the two sides with equal empathy is what makes Drugstore Cowboy such a beautiful film, one whose somewhat uplifting ending feels more organic than the bleaker depths of many of its imitators.