Posted by: steveonfilm | January 14, 2010

Movie Review: Drugstore Cowboy

Release Date: “October” 1989

Screenwriter: Gus Van Sant

Director: Gus Van Sant

Staring:
Matt Dillon as Bob
Kelly Lynch as Dianne
James LeGros as Rick
Heather Graham as Nadine

Academy Awards:
None

I first heard about Drugstore Cowboy back when I was in high school. A buddy of mine was talking about how he had trouble renting it from Blockbuster because he wasn’t 17 or something. Anyway, it wasn’t important. All I knew was that it was about some drug addicts, and at the time I wasn’t interested in learning about drug addicts. So I didn’t go out of my way to see it. But fifteen some odd years later, I found myself ready to watch some junkies destroy their lives.

Drugstore Cowboy is about Bob and his “crew,” which consist of his wife Dianne, his “sidekick” Rick, and Rick’s girlfriend Nadine, who go around the Pacific Northwest robbing drugstores to get high in the early 1970s. It was loosely based on a then unpublished novel of the same name by James Fogel. Even though the title pretty much screams it, I was honestly surprised that this movie was about prescription drugs as opposed to heroin, acid, coke, and meth. Within the first fifteen minutes I felt pretty dumb for not realizing that.

Anyway, I thought this movie was great. It was Gus Van Sant’s “breakthrough” movie, so to speak. The set up, pacing, and story arc are damn near perfect. And it’s a great example of how a three act screenplay can work for a small, relatively short, character driven drama. I think part of why this movie worked so well was because Van Sant both wrote and directed it, and you can sort of tell that he knew exactly how he was going to shoot certain scenes when he wrote them. It’s hard to explain, but everything seems to show up just the way you’d expect it to, as if the visuals of the film, and the voice of the film, are very much one in the same.

I’ve never been a huge Matt Dillon fan. Then again, that’s not to say that I’m going to avoid movies with him in it. But this movie really gave me a new found respect for him. I thought Dillon was just awesome in this film. The way he plays Bob when he’s high, coming down, and sober is phenomenal, each with it’s own distinct quirks.. Bob’s the central character, so you see the most range with him, but Kelly Lynch as Dianne was great as well. I don’t know why Lynch wasn’t a bigger star in the 90’s, but I thought she was pretty solid here. Their relationship was odd, because Bob very much looks like a junkie, but Dianne, if you didn’t know any better, looked like the prom queen. She was always doing her nails. Well dressed. Makeup looked good. You wouldn’t know she was a junkie. The Rick and Nadine characters were there to flesh things out a bit, but mostly served as background characters, save for an important part Nadine plays in the middle of the film.

The main story arc follows Bob in the first half of the movie as the chief leader of the crew. He calls the shots. He doles out the drugs. And he’s the one in charge. No one questions him, and everyone does what he says. That’s not to say he’s abusive. He’s just the alpha personality, and the rest of the crew follow him because they only want the next score, and he delivers. The second half of the movie follows Bob as he transitions from junkie to normal, sober member of society. It was a nice way to move, because you can see that none of the crew are really bad people. They don’t hurt the people they rob. There isn’t any real violence. They’re just drug users who, had they not gotten hooked, probably could have done something with their lives. So in essence, you’re rooting for them to get out of it, and when Bob takes that step you really want him to succeed.

The soundtrack is pretty insignificant. I mean, it doesn’t play really strongly into the story. It’s mostly just songs that would have been on the radio at the time, and a few small parts were scored to coincide with the drama on the screen. The same goes for the editing. Nothing stands out. But then again, there wasn’t any crazy camera work either. Things were kept simple, and accomplished what it needed to accomplish.

If you haven’t had a chance to see this movie yet, I’d encourage you to do so. From a purely educational aspect, it’s a great case study on how to pace and set up a drama with a small cast of characters. There’s a good balance of character development, and story events, to keep things interesting without moving at too slow of a pace. From a purely entertainment aspect, it’s a nice example of a realistic movie about someone at the bottom of society who has a moment of clarity, and decides to make a change. However, if dramas aren’t your thing, you might want to steer clear.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steve

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