Movie Review: “Drugstore Cowboy”

“Drugstore Cowboy” (**)

In another drug-fueled swing back to the ’70s, Gus Van Sant tries to make his version of a western road movie. There’s your wild protagonist cowboy, Bob (Matt Dillon), who robs and steals with his gang of bandits. He’s got a dashing beauty wife, a hapless sidekick with his ingenue girlfriend, and then he’s got the man of the law perpetually chasing them. They travel across the West, continuing to commit their crimes when he gets jinxed and wants out of the game and finds it more difficult than he expects.

That could be a really fun shoot ’em up Western, but this is no classic Western. In fact, they creatively rob pharmacies, are being chased by a narc, and the jinx is mostly likely aroused by a drug-induced superstition. The redemptive qualities to this story would stand out either way, but Bob’s struggle with his addiction is fun to watch. But not as much fun as the robberies. The best scene is in the beginning when we see them perfecting their craft on a run-of-the-mill heist. Their plan runs like clockwork – for the moment. After a close call, they decide to travel and constantly avoid the law. 

Things slow down in the second act as the stakes drop. It loses a necessary sense of urgency – the cop is no longer rabidly on their heels, they escape their problems too easily. In most drug movies, the stakes are always high as a nature of the content, disease, death, arrest, but they seem to be ignored throughout the second act. The plot does reconcile this fact, but not compellingly enough so that the lack of tension for 40 minutes was passable.

Is it me or does he kind of look like James Franco?

The stakes never reach their heights again until the climax, which is another truly riveting scene. This movie didn’t deserve the climax it was given. As Van Sant tried to navigate between the genres, he ultimately lost some emotional impetus. What he does do successfully is put you in to the life of this group of addicts. He embeds the viewer so deeply into their proceedings and hierarchies that a lot of the tension in the film is milked out of the dynamic.

A jazzy score from Eliot Goldenthal and some weird imagery from Van Sant for a weird and woozy marriage. A very young Heather Graham is really good as the self-conscious teenager, Nadine, in the group, who is just seeking everyone’s approval. She brings an energy to the movie that is sorely needed by most of her cast mates. Matt Dillon delivers a pretty even-tempered performance. He avoids going big, but keeps things animated enough and shows a bright spirit beneath his actions that invests the audience in his character. He definitely pulls off carrying this movie. I’m also surprised at his level of fame. He’s almost too attractive for this role and he’s not a bad actor. I think I might be a Matt Dillon fan even, if such a thing exists.

Fortunately, Dillon does carry this movie. But without him, there would be little reason to care about the characters and Van Sant’s decent direction would not be able to save this movie from itself.

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