funny, when i first watched drugstore cowboy - amazingly, now 20 years ago - at an actual movie theatre in 1989 - it was william s. burroughs' appearance that stuck with me (and matt dillon's great performance). now, in 2009, i'll forever associate drugstore cowboy with packing my drop bags for umstead and, remarkably, the onset of what would be diagnosed the next day as pneumonia! what a sad, but interesting dichotomy!
i haven't seen drugstore cowboy in since 1989. i did catch snippets of it during the intervening years, but this was the first time i watched the entire film since then. drugstore cowbody was the first of a drug double feature, followed, as it was by "trainspotting" - another great film of that genre. but i missed that one. ironically, in less than 24 hours i'd be taking prescription pharmaceuticals - albeit the antibiotic biaxin xl (not noted for any psychedelic proprieties) - ha!
dillon plays bob, the deadpan antihero, who leads a quartet of drug addicts on their continual quest to score drugs. in one sense, this is a traditional road movie populated with drug users and set in the underground world they occupy. what makes the film powerful, and captivating, is it doesn't portray them as either criminals or heroes. they're just people who are physically sick from addiction. dillon's narration, in a flat, matter of fact delivery, underscores the apparent normalcy of their existence.
the film is set in 1971, in the northwest, alternating between washington and oregon. the four, dillon, his wife (kelly lynch), dillon's buddy and his (underage) girlfriend, move thru a seemingly endless string of hotels and motels. the film gets its name from dillon's idea to rob drugstores - why not go to where the drugs are - to satisfy their collective habits. the plan works well until a hospital heist goes bad. for dillon it's not too bad because he escapes capture and suffers only a bloody gash to the head for the effort.
but upon their return to the motel room, they find the teenage girlfriend dead on the floor from an overdose. her death, they believe, is from the bad luck she unleashed by purposefully throwing a hat on the bed to tempt fate. in their world, hats on beds and dogs are seriously bad karma. their efforts to dispose of the body, first in the attic crawl space, then to a hastily dug grave following word they had to vacate the room because a deputy sherriff convention arrived that day - had all the trappings of a comedy, but was played for pathos!
that anonymous burial was the catharsis for dillon to say he wanted to go home and get into a methadone treatment program. a plan soundly rejected by his wife and buddy. they split up the remaining drugs and go separate ways. dillon's efforts to go straight - a factory job and the methadone program - are almost derailed by the appearance of william s. burroughs, as the defrocked priest. he could easily have been a metaphor for death incarnate.
by rejecting burrough's entreaties to get high with him, dillon realized that had he done so it would have been the end of him. ironically, dillon's rejection of the drugs brought to him in a sudden visit by his wife - who he also rejects (clinging to the hope of getting straight) sets in motion his final confrontation. he gives the drugs to burroughs, returns to his room and is set upon by a pair of hoods who want the drugs - and decide to kill him when they don't get any drugs from dillon.
the fade out, with him in the ambulance clinging to life - being driven to the hospital - is an irony not lost on dillon himself. whether he survives the gunshot wound is left unresolved. normally this is a movie ending that i despise with a passion. but somehow, in this context - where dillion had lived somewhere between life and death throughout his addiction, it seemed somehow an appropriate ambiguity.
twenty years later, this is still a film worth watching. fyi, dillon won the 1989 independent spirit best actor award for his performance.
for a great double feature, check out matt dillon in "factotum," where he trades in drugs for alcohol.