What do you see whenever you think of a cowboy? The glamourous image of a hero riding on horseback, cigar in mouth, maybe shooting up some bandits. Or, a junkie getting high off prescription medication? You’d never think of the last one but that’s the cowboy seen in Drugstore Cowboy, a harrowing drama about how far one can drift from consciousness, and if one can ever return.
The story revolves around Bob (brilliant Matt Dillon), his wife (Kelly Lynch) and the rest of his “family” (Heather Graham and James LeGros). They are a “family” of junkies living as outsiders in Portland Oregon. They go around robbing drug stores for all of their prescription drugs to add onto their worsening drug addicts. As the cops begin to crack down on them, Bob and the rest of the gang flee and travel around the Pacific Northwest, robbing more stores and end up on a journey of regret, enlightenment, and redemption.
Drugstore Cowboy was directed by Gus Van Sant who also directed the masterpiece My Own Private Idaho. In a way, Cowboy can be seen as a predecessor to Idaho: both films take place in Portland amongst those who don’t live normal, wealthy lives. It concerns those in the drug culture, trying to stray as far away from the “straight” life as far as possible. However, as Cowboy Bob and Idaho Mike and Scott soon find out that the more involved they get in drugs and crime, the more they long for a “normal” life. Both films contain characters so overwhelmed by the hallucinations of drugs and narcolepsy that neither the audience or the characters can distinguish between reality.
What differs between Cowboy and Idaho is that in My Own Private Idaho Mike wanted so desperately to escape his lonely impoverished life but just couldn’t get away as Scott did everything he could to get away from his rich life and live in the hood. They represented the battling forces of fate and freewill and in the end the movie left you with a question mark of which would win in the end. Drugstore Cowboy contains only Bob trying to escape his drug-riddled life but finding himself being pulled right back in. What Van Sant is proposing here is that in the end, your past will always come back to haunt you.
Along with stirring up the emotions, the film is also technically and visually stunning as well. Between the drastic backdrop of Mt. Hood amongst the old industrial section of Portland and the grainy old home video footage, it makes us wonder more and more, will Bob ever escape or be condemned to his pharmacudical-drug laced fate?