What Woody Allen is to New York — or, more accurately, what John Waters is to Baltimore — Gus Van Sant is to Portland. His films, particularly Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho (known collectively as the “Portland Trilogy”) played a seismic role in cementing the city’s counterculture identity, though it’s important to note that the Portland seen in these films no longer exists. Indeed, the Portland Trilogy is a time capsule from an era that bears zero resemblance to the quirky playground of VooDoo Doughnut and “Put a Bird on It.” As the trilogy’s second installment, Drugstore Cowboy is a transitional film that bridges Noche’s experimental neorealism and Idaho’s character-driven intertextuality by featuring elements of both. An American outlaw movie in the mode of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, the film takes place in 1971, and it’s set in and around the viaduct beneath the former Lovejoy Ramp. Today, the area is a ritzy downtown neighborhood called the Pearl District, but back then, it was an industrial slum central to the city’s skid row. The location shooting provides local credibility — these are the places where heroin junkies, the kind depicted in the film, actually hung out — as well as a documentary-esque immediacy. Van Sant’s images honor the underbelly of the major American city, particularly as it pertains to the twilight of the Reagan years, shedding light on the unique beauty of depravity and urban squalor, but never trivializing or glamorizing derelict lifestyles. (The Lovejoy Columns, which held up the viaduct and doubled as public art canvases for the burnouts who lived there, are a major focal point, visual representations of the film’s central theme.) It’s simply, yet quite profoundly, an honest portrayal of drug culture free of moralism and sensationalism. William S. Burroughs, Van Sant’s early muse and the film’s presiding deity (he has a cameo toward the end), considered Drugstore Cowboy’s presiding message to be, “Say no to drug hysteria, or any other kind of hysteria, for that matter.”
Van Sant’s images honor the underbelly of the major American city, particularly as it pertains to the twilight of the Reagan years, shedding light on the unique beauty of depravity and urban squalor, but never trivializing or glamorizing derelict lifestyles.
The story follows a quartet of prescription drug addicts, led by the superstitious Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon). To feed their habit, they rob pharmacies and hospitals across the Pacific Northwest. What they don’t use, they sell, the cash going toward buying more drugs. Together, they’re a makeshift family, a big reason why the film works as a subversive feel-good story. Their interplay is infectious, and there are bits of drug-induced humor that, however eccentric and slightly disturbing, are wholly organic to the scenario. We see them orchestrate their heists and marvel at their ingenuity, their prowess. But thanks to Bob’s voiceover narration, we know their lives to be sad ones, his detached and listless voice alluding to deep-seated regret and shame, like he’s sharing his story at an AA meeting. In the film’s most emotionally devastating scene, Bob visits his elderly mother, and for the first time, we see him through the eyes of someone who isn’t one of his junkie comrades, an emotional redirection of Lacanian import. Tragedy abounds in the form of an overdose, which then, of course, leads to panic. As these emotions unfurl, the film stays grounded in a sort of poetic naturalism. No single character gesture or plot twist outweighs the film itself, a testament to Van Sant’s sensitive artistry. It’s this very sensitivity that ultimately makes Drugstore Cowboy a redemption story, a resoundingly positive experience that traverses sleazy material with grace and gratitude.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.