Reviewed Jun 22, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
It is difficult to make a film about the lifestyle of society’s outsiders without any sense of either revulsion or romanticization. The problem is exacerbated with films dealing with drug abuse and addiction, which is still condemned in American society more often than examined with any sociological concern for the actual attendant lifestyle of especially long-term drug users. The question of just how junkies live their lives has however long been an issue in so-called Beat literature inspired in particular by the life and ethos of William S. Burroughs, who true to form makes a deathly appearance in Drugstore Cowboy as the epitome of what the film considers a lifestyle choice. To be both somewhat objective and simultaneously tender is an even more ambitious challenge and one which director Gus Van Sant essays brilliantly in this film. Accordingly, Drugstore Cowboy is the film that marked Van Sant as one of the prime up-coming independent filmmakers in contemporary America. At the time, the director had little professional film-making experience (having made a very low-budget work with a minimal crew) but a noted affinity for actors. Yet despite this he was able to establish a visual style with an ever so slightly melancholic and airy feeling for the rhythms of his characters’ lifestyle. The film was dutifully acclaimed, and after it Van Sant was able to build a career on the fringes of Hollywood until finally finding both critical and popular success with his handling of the hit Good Will Hunting.
Based on the auto-biographical but unpublished novel by ex-junkie and convict James Fogle, Drugstore Cowboy concerns the lives of a group of self-confessed drug fiends, a “crew” led by Matt Dillon. They score their fixes by robbing drug stores and feasting on the pharmaceutical grade material they can pick up. The police however know about their habitual offences and one officer in particular (James Remar) is intent to catch them with the drugs. After the police raid their house, they take up another apartment and then embark on a nomadic journey from town to town, eventually stopping to rest in a roadside motel. Another robbery firmly reveals that Dillon is a very superstitious man, who is afraid of somehow being cursed in his activities. Eventually their attention turns to a more ambitious robbery, this time of a hospital. Whilst his friends create a diversion, Dillon breaks into a locked drug storage room in the hospital but his activities are overheard and he is chased. When they return to their hotel room they discover to their chagrin that the teen girl they left there as too inexperienced to go along with them has overdosed on drugs from the previous drug store robbery. Now they have a corpse to contend with. Dillon tries to extend his hotel stay but finds that the room has been booked for a police sheriff’s convention. Dillon soon vows to go straight and parts from the group, although he finds the temptations still around him in his new life. Soon, the people from his past gradually make their return.
What is remarkable about Drugstore Cowboy is its lack of overt judgment or reactionary condemnation of these people. Indeed, Van Sant is careful to reveal just how much this band of outsiders has become a family unit of sorts, organized around new patriarch Dillon. Thus, the film also examines just how negligently this new patriarch handles the responsibility he has for other lives but is seemingly unconcerned with. The key issue here is arguably the nature of responsibility, although the film makes it clear that society’s outsiders view this from a different perspective than conventional morality would dictate – yet, there are subtle ways in which the junkie existence mirrors the lifestyle it seeks to avoid, particularly in the sense of a ritualized existence. However, there is an illusory freedom in drug dependence that makes Dillon’s “normal” life towards the end of the film seem dull and stagnant in comparison. The film neither condemns the lifestyle nor glamorizes it, instead capturing the sense of addictive ebb and flow that propels the junkie lifestyle from hit to hit. These people, by their own admission, love drugs and for Dillon especially, the highs are an almost transcendental experience as much as an escape from what are dreary surroundings. The film captures the sense of easygoing madness which nevertheless underlies this minimal and arguably pointless existence: but even that is a judgment the film never makes as it explores the tensions and petty power games within a crew of professional addicts.
The drug becomes the ultimate goal and yet these people are almost too easygoing to be considered desperate: indeed, the term “wasted” seems best to describe these characters on many levels. They are almost unaware of how ritualistic their life has become as they are forever in pursuit of the next high and how this entraps them even as they would claim escape and freedom in their choices. Yet everyday life when Dillon finally experiences it voluntarily is equally ritualistic, but its banality is ironically at least socially acceptable. The tragic repercussions of the junkie lifestyle in the film are an increasing sense of the leaking erosion of humanity. The real horror in this film is the sense of human indifference that attends the lifestyle. This indifference is a kind of junkie selfishness that essentially makes even friends somewhat disposable. Thus, the film’s note of reticent outrage is saved for the scenes in which the people have to dispose of the overdose victim. Although treated with a comical distance, this scene is important for it is in this experience that Dillon must finally confront the fact that his drug use has made him oblivious to a common humanity. This moral blindness is perhaps the real cause of his mounting paranoia and when Burroughs makes his appearance as the epitome of this lifestyle, he is a deathly figure of the eventual fate that potentially awaits Dillon unless his attempt to reconnect with the everyday world can work out.