"Drugstore Cowboy" Turns 30: Revisiting The Classic Addiction Film

By David Konow 10/23/19

The classic film offers viewers a glimpse into the world of addiction without cheap clichés and stereotypes.

Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy
Photo via YouTube

Drugstore Cowboy, the acclaimed film directed by Gus Van Sant, has just hit its 30-year anniversary. Three decades after its release, The Guardian makes the case that it could possibly be the best movie made about addiction.

Based On A True Story

Cowboy was based on the memoir by James Fogle.

As Van Sant told Indie Wire, “Fogle had spent most of his time in prison growing up. He had written a few different novels. This was one of them. This material was written in the ‘60s and it always had a very pulp-fiction feeling…”

Cowboy follows Matt Dillon and his cohort of drug-using pals, played by James LeGros, Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham, as they rob drugstores along the Pacific Northwest. The film really captures the many nuances and subtleties of active addiction, writes the Guardian's Scott Tobias.

All You Gotta Do Is Look At The Labels

In the film, Dillon says, “Most people don’t know how they’re going to feel from one minute to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.”

As Tobias writes, “Drugstore Cowboy could be a companion piece to Midnight Cowboy from 20 years earlier, in that both are about modern outlaws living hand-to-mouth in urban squalor, running short-term scams into long-term trouble. Only Van Sant’s film has a funny, offbeat, episodic quality that doesn’t negate the heartbreak and tragedy that’s peppered throughout it, but gives it dimension and surprising verve.”

Another critic called Cowboy “a breakthrough portrait of addiction… The film is casually idiosyncratic, shifting from absurdist comedy to downbeat drama, and back again. It’s a fitting style for characters whose lives veer from ecstasy to dread, depending on whether the next fix is in hand.”

At the height of anti-drug hysteria in the '80s, Cowboy was also a refreshingly non-judgmental movie that showed addiction without the use of cheap clichés and stereotypes.

An Anti-Drug Film

In a behind-the-scenes documentary on Cowboy, Van Sant said, “I think it’s an anti-drug film, yeah. It’s not a pro-drug film. It’s a story about a group of people that are addicted very heavily to drugs and something that happens to them.”

The film’s producer, Cary Brokaw, added, “It allows the audience to see the attraction of drugs, and to understand intimately what that lifestyle, that high, that surge, that charge means. But it also allows the audience to see the consequences firsthand and to see the destruction and the loss.”

Fogle would die in prison in 2012 while serving a 16-year sentence for robbing a pharmacy. He was 75.

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.