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In America's Pacific Northwest in 1971, Bob (Matt Dillon) gets by with a little help from his friends, robbing drugstores, popping pills, smoking dope, injecting... whatever. Bob's long history of substance abuse may have left him impotent. He is no longer interested in making love to wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch); he really hasn't much time for his dim-witted pal Rick (James Le Gros), who hangs around for the joyride, and even less liking for Rick's underage girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham). When he gets tired of running from the cops, when he wearies of the hassle of staying high, when there's a dead body on his hands, Bob thinks it's time he went straight. But nobody said it was easy, being clean.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Incurable romantics swoon over Love Story and Doctor Zhivago; disaffected youth get wound up watching A Clockwork Orange or Rebel Without A Cause and drug addicts get high on Easy Rider and Drugstore Cowboy. Named one of the 1000 Best Films Ever Made in 1999 by The New York Times, Gus Van Sant's grim but darkly funny tale is a true original...a daring and unsparing look into the drugs lifestyle from an insider's point of view.

It doesn't try to say that drugs are good or bad; doesn't preach and refuses to moralize. No major studio would touch it, of course. Matt Dillon, as Bob, delivers a deliberately listless narration that begins with "I was once a shameless full-time dope fiend." He expresses a logic that even non-users understand...addicts feel bad about being abusers so they take drugs to feel good and accept the bad as penance for the good. When an officious social worker is grilling Bob about his habit, he takes a long look at the lady and asks, with exquisite timing "what is this, my life story? People use drugs to relieve the pressures of their everyday life," he snaps, "like having to tie their shoes."

Bob's story is based on a (then unpublished) novel by James Fogle, who eked out a living by stealing drugs from pharmacies and hospitals after creating diversions to distract staff, like a teenager staging an epileptic fit or a vehicle doing squealing wheelies in a car park. Fogle went to prison for his crimes and (as far as Hollywood is concerned) was never heard from again. Bob leads a "family" of new world (1971) desperadoes, drifting from one dingy apartment to the next staying afloat in the only way they know how by loading up from scam to deal. Bob may not be too bright (he turns superstitions into hexes, like no hats on beds and no mention of dogs) but he is not dumb.

They manage to stay just one step ahead of Gentry (James Remar), a relentless cop who hasn't figured out how Bob, Dianne, Rick and Nadine keep from getting busted with their booty. To the film's detriment, only Bob is given any sort of background...and a skimpy one at that. He's known Dianne since they were kids; we meet his mother (Grace Zabriskie), who despairs of him and hides her purse whenever he makes one of his infrequent visits. And always she lectures. "I truly feel pity for you both," she nags. "You are grown up now and yet you still act as children, who want to do nothing but run and play. You cannot run and play all your life!" She's right, of course, and there comes a time when a defiant hat is thrown onto a bed and Bob, suddenly stuck with a body he has to dispose of, faces the inevitable ...it's straighten out or wind up like the same dead bastard he's dragging through the bush to a shallow grave.

Well, Dillon has always had that look of a lost puppy in need of a good feed and warm bed but Bob doesn't merit much sympathy. He carries no weapons, but you suspect he is capable of violence if cornered. Van Sant needed just a tiny seed of remorse for Bob to win us over; a moment of introspection, but it's not there when you need to feel. Instead, Van Sant makes it hard for Bob to reinvent himself as "a regular guy." Dianne shows up with a package of temptation; a punk kid from Bob's past gives him a pummelling to settle old scores and an old mentor (William S Burroughs as a defrocked priest), shares the same detox hostel.

Insiders will tell you that Drugstore Cowboy is "fucking ace, man," but looking in from the outside, I have a problem with such effusion. I have a problem with career iconoclast and heroin addict Burroughs ("I have never regretted my experience with drugs") writing his own dialogue and waffling on about how "in the future, right wingers will use drug hysteria to set up an international police apparatus." The Burroughs appearance makes Van Sant seem less ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of drug use. Lefties, inhale and rejoice and righties see why you've never done the drawback.

Published September 23, 2004

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(US, 1989)

CAST: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, James Le Gros

DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant

SCRIPT: William Rose

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.78:1 Anamorphic widescreen. Dolby digital 2:0. Languages: English, German, French, Spanish.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: September 15, 2004

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