Drugstore Cowboy is a 1989 crime drama directed by Gus Van Sant (his second film as director) and written by him and Daniel Yost, based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by James Fogle. The film stars Matt Dillon, with Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, James LeGros, James Remar, and William S. Burroughs.
Tom Waits was Van Sant’s original choice to play the lead, but the finance company would not support his choice. Dillon, instead, won the Independent Spirit Award for playing the lead. Drugstore Cowboy was filmed mainly around Portland, Oregon. The soundtrack music has songs contemporaneous with the 1971 setting.
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
The movie begins with a shot of Bob Hughes (Dillon), a 26-year-old junkie and thief of pharmacies/hospitals, in an ambulance with a smile on his face. We will see him here again at the end of the movie.
He and the three other people in his group of pharmaceutical thieves do what they do as, of course, an escape from the miseries of life, comparable to the escape that religion offers. Recall Marx’s words: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from the introduction)
Getting high is the foursome’s religious ecstasy. Drugs are their sacraments: in liquid form, the transubstantiated blood of Christ; in pill form, they are the Host wafers.
So, this quartet of drug addicts/thieves is allegorically representative of religious people, since both groups have escape from life’s frustrations as their goal. As I will attempt to show, parallels of the druggie life with that of the religious can be found in subtle, and not so subtle, manifestations throughout the film.
The thieves go into a drugstore one by one, as if they aren’t together. Nadine (Graham) suddenly pretends to have an epileptic seizure and falls on the floor, shaking violently. It’s as if she were possessed of demons. This distraction allows Bob to sneak into the back of the store and steal as many pharmaceuticals as he can get his hands on, while Dianne (Lynch) tries to keep the pharmacist from going to the back to call an ambulance.
When Bob has all the drugs he can get, and he, Dianne, and Rick (LeGros) leave the store, Nadine is suddenly better. She simply gets up and walks out of the drugstore, too, with all the people who watched the incident looking at her incredulously. Yet why wouldn’t she just get up and leave? They have their drugs, their religious ecstasy and salvation, so she has experienced a miraculous ‘faith healing.’ As Christ said, “Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk.” (Mark 2:9)
Now, these four have broken the law, but remember what Paul said about salvation by grace, as opposed to adherence to the law: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). In accordance with the antinomian distortion of this idea, of all the swearing we hear coming from their mouths, blasphemies are notably frequent. We hear “Goddamn,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” because God is Who they have unconsciously on their minds.
Having returned to their home, Bob tells the other three to act as if they’d just come back from church. Well, of course: a drugstore, home of their sacraments, is church. During that car ride home, Bob has put some of the drugs into his veins and has vividly described the pleasure they give him, like receiving God’s grace, it seems. He says, “Your worst enemy–he wasn’t so bad.” Recall in this connection what Christ said” “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
When Bob imagines “blues and Dilaudid in such great amounts on the spoon that it would literally be overflowing,” we’re reminded of Psalm 23: “My cup runneth over.” Bob says, “You could do no wrong” while on drugs, for such is the effect of sanctifying grace as brought on by the sacramental pharmaceuticals.
Inside their home, we see shots of all the pills they’ve stolen, and immediately after those, a shot of a small figurine on a side table of what must be the Virgin Mary. A fitting juxtaposition of images, for immediately after that shot, we return to close-up shots of drugs–more pills, and a needle Bob’s getting ready for Rick to shoot up.
Another interesting parallel that can be made between substance abusers and the religiously devout is the two groups’ stance on sex. Paul held chastity as a moral ideal, only assenting to marriage for other Christians by necessity–hence, the celibate Catholic priesthood. In the case of drug addicts like Bob, it is well known that the men suffer a depressed sex drive, including erectile dysfunction.
Small wonder Dianne, as beautiful as she is, gets so frustrated with her husband Bob, asking that if he’s so hot (actually, he’s hot to steal more drugs!), why won’t he just throw her on the bed and make love to her. Later, she tries to turn him on by undressing and dancing to music, but he’s so high that, to her chagrin, he shows no interest in sex. For that matter, we never see the other couple, Rick and Nadine, as attractive as she is, getting it on, either.
Indeed, their home is like a coed convent.
Soon enough, the police, led by Detective Gentry (Remar) and having been tipped off about the theft in the drugstore, raid the junkies’ home and wreck the place in an unsuccessful search for the stolen drugs (actually, Dianne has hidden them in a hole dug outside). Just as Christians, assumed to have engaged in such vices as cannibalism (a far-too-literal interpretation of the Eucharist), were persecuted by the Roman authorities in the first century AD, so are the quartet of dope fiends harassed by the cops. Gentry’s name aptly sounds like a near-pun on Gentile.
Bob needs to go to his mom’s house to get some clothes, but she feels totally estranged from her son and daughter-in-law for their drug habit. One is reminded of when Jesus said that faith in Him would set the believers against their families (Luke 12:51-53)
Bob et al have to find a new home to get away from Gentry, and they find the “Josephine apartments.” Why they have this name is lost on Bob and Rick, the latter saying that the man who rented it is named “Dale.” Perhaps the feminized “Josephine” is a fusion of Joseph and Mary, which is fitting given the aforementioned figurine of Mary found in their first place.
In the new place, Nadine makes the faux pas of asking if they can get a dog, the mere mentioning of which in Bob’s superstitious mind causes a hex that makes stealing drugs dangerously bad luck for a month. One is reminded, in this connection, of Matthew 7:6, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”
We learn of how Bob and Dianne have come to regard dogs, and even the mere discussion of them, as bad luck. The husband and wife owned a dog that, out of its love and loyalty to them, found its way home after being separated from them during a robbery gone wrong, and the police followed the dog home. The police put Bob and Dianne in jail for it.
As we can see, giving what’s holy–for Bob and Dianne, their pursuit of the Holy Grail of drugs–to their dog has made it turn against them and rend them to pieces, so to speak.
The worst hex that can be brought onto Bob, though, is a hat placed on a bed, based again on his bad experience with this cause of ill fortune. Why is leaving a hat on a bed so catastrophic for Bob, though? Why would such a mundane thing put a hex of at least fifteen years on him, with such risks as prison or even death?
I believe a hat, with its round base going over the wearer’s head, represents a halo, which in turn represents holiness (in these drug addicts’ conception of ‘spiritual bliss,’ mind you). The bed represents sex, something both the drug abuser and religiously devout avoid, as I explained above. Placing a hat on a bed thus is symbolic of profaning the spiritual, of the devout breaking his vow of chastity and celibacy.
A hat on a bed is also symbolic of the mixing of the divine, upper world with the profane, lower world, which causes the calamities we read about in the primordial narratives of the first several chapters of Genesis. A hat goes on the head, seat of the mind, reason, and therefore spirit. The body lies on a bed. The juxtaposing of a hat and a bed, therefore, is symbolic of making the mind focus on carnal things–thus, it is bad luck.
Now, I keep comparing Bob et al to spiritual, religious types, and while the ideal for such people is to “love thy neighbour as thyself,” there is of course a huge abyss separating this ideal and the average religious person’s ability and willingness to live up to the ideal. Bob and Dianne are frequently mean to poor Nadine, who is increasingly getting afraid of being abandoned by them one day.
Knowing Gentry is doing a stakeout by Bob’s apartment, he figures out a way to get rid of the detective and his spying cops. He writes a letter–how like Paul writing an epistle!–to trick the cops into spying up in the window of a neighbour’s apartment, provoking the man living there to get his rifle and shoot at the cops; for Bob has led his neighbour to believe the spying cop up at the window is a peeping Tom!
Bob, Dianne, Rick, and Nadine all sit by their window to watch the neighbour shoot the cop peeping in his window. Bob sets it up as some fun entertainment for himself and his druggie friends. Since I’m comparing these dope fiends to religious types, this entertaining show of watching the evil cops getting their comeuppance is rather like the entertainment churchgoers get watching their preacher dramatically describe and narrate how the sinners of the world will get what’s coming to them on Judgement Day.
Gentry, of course, is furious with Bob the next day, furious about his fellow cop getting injured, and he gives Bob his own comeuppance with several punches to Bob’s gut.
To deal with their hex and get away from Gentry, Bob et al go “crossroading.” During the ride, we hear “Israelites,” by Desmond Dekker and The Aces. This song again involves a comparison between the use of drugs and religion, for it is a reggae song about the struggles of Rastafarians (for whom the smoking of cannabis is a sacrament), a religious group associated in the song with the Israelites, who in a life of crime don’t wish “to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.” The song is heard again during the end credits.
Bob robs a drugstore with an open transom, and gets vials of pure powdered Dilaudid. Encouraged by this treasure trove find, Bob convinces the group to help him rip off a hospital.
The robbing of the hospital is far less successful. In his attempt to evade capture by the staff, Bob gets a bloody cut on his forehead, which in his, so to speak, ‘imitation of Christ,’ is symbolic of the crown of thorns.
Meanwhile, the abuse Nadine is suffering from Bob is pushing her to the breaking point. She calls him a “hog,” reminding us not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). By the time he returns to the motel the quartet is staying at, Bob discovers what Rick and Dianne have already found: Nadine, dead of an overdose of Dilaudid. She’s also left her hat on her bed, to spite Bob.
Her suicide–having put the other three in serious danger of being charged with her death, since as Bob says, it’s “paramount [sic] to a murder beef,” combined with the hex of the hat on the bed–is therefore her betrayal of them. She is the Judas of this story; Bob calls her a “conniving little bitch.” Her suicide also reminds us of that of Judas (Matthew 27:5).
What’s worse, the three of them must give up their room to some people involved in a sheriff’s convention. Bob is so scared that, as we understand later in the film when he explains himself to Dianne, he prays to God to keep him from being sent to prison for Nadine’s death. In return, Bob promises to God that he’ll give up the junkie life, get on the methadone treatment program, and live a virtuous life.
His switch from the escape of drugs to the crutch of prayer is much of what solidifies my interpretation of the film as the junkie life being allegorical of the religious life. His fear during this moment is like Christ praying in Gethsemane; he would have God take this cup from him, but according to God’s will, not Bob’s (Matthew 26:36-42).
Bob manages to get Nadine’s body out of the motel without suspicion, then buried safely. Now he must fulfill his part of the deal with God: give up the drugs.
On the 21-day methadone program in Portland, Bob stays in a hotel named, significantly, St. Francis. He explains to a member of the staff of a rehabilitation centre that a junkie uses dope “to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.” Yes, even something as simple as that can be too irritating to bear sometimes.
Of course, if we had a socialist system that relieved us of those everyday pressures, providing a social safety net, full employment, free healthcare and education, people wouldn’t need to resort to escaping through drugs or religion, because alienation would be a dwindling problem at worst. But I digress…
Bob soon meets a former priest named Tom (Burroughs), a man whose religion hadn’t provided a sufficient escape, so like Bob, Tom gave in to drug addiction, too. Again, in Tom we see one of the strongest links between drug abuse and religion in this film. Having junkie/author William S. Burroughs, of all people, to play Tom only drives the point home even harder.
Bob gets a job drilling holes that bolts fit into. This drilling of holes suggests the driving of nails through Christ’s hands and feet into the Cross. I’m reminded of how Mel Gibson had himself filmed driving a nail into Christ’s hand in The Passion of the Christ. The Christian convert tries to remind himself…tries, at least…to remind himself that he, though saved, is still a sinner.
So Bob now has an ordinary, boring, working-class job. How long can he go without feeling the itch to escape back into the world of getting high? He himself told the rehabilitation centre employee that no one can ever talk a junkie out of doing drugs.
Temptation arrives in the form of beautiful Dianne, who of course has no intention of ever stopping her drug habit. She gives him a package of drugs with which she hopes to lure him back into the life, but like Jesus in the wilderness, he refuses the Devil’s temptations (Luke 4:8). He’d like to have her back, but she doesn’t want to be straight.
It’s here that he tells her of his praying to God to save him from jail. He says that in his new, straight life, he has hopes of something good happening to him. No such luck with her.
He gives the package of drugs, which include some Dilaudid, to Tom, who says that Bob can get an indulgence for it. Somehow, that punk David gets wind of Bob getting the drugs; combine this knowledge with the anger David feels towards Bob for having helped a junkie kid get away without paying for drugs David gave him, and he has more than enough motivation to get revenge on Bob and steal that package of drugs from him.
Having hidden in Bob’s apartment and wearing masks, David and his punk accomplice assault Bob, kicking the shit out of him. They demand that he give them those drugs, which he of course no longer has. He’s done nothing wrong, as Pilate observed of Jesus (Matthew 27:23). Also like Jesus, Bob must go through his own violent ordeal.
David ends Bob’s ‘passion,’ if you will, by shooting him. The bullet hole is like the spear in Christ’s side (John 19:34). Bob is left for dead, but a neighbour calls for help in time, so he’s taken out on a stretcher into an ambulance, just where we found him smiling in that opening shot at the beginning of the film.
Gentry arrives, wondering if the one who shot Bob was the cop who got shot at by the angry neighbour for the ‘peeping Tom’ incident. Gentry has earlier warned Bob that this angry cop, now demoted to traffic duty, has been seeking revenge on Bob. Just as Christ made enemies among both the Roman and Jewish authorities, so has Bob made enemies among both the police and his fellow junkies.
Bob tells Gentry that “the hat” is what attacked him. Gentry thinks “The Hat” is the nickname of some dope fiend/criminal who had a falling-out with Bob, but what Bob means is that, having almost been killed, he’s been freed of the hex of the hat on the bed. Like Christ’s death on the Cross as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), Bob’s shooting has saved him from his sins.
As an ‘imitator of Christ,’ Bob has just shared in Christ’s suffering (Philippians 3:10). He got an ‘indulgence’ from Tom, so Bob is free to do drugs again! I suspect that he hasn’t been mortally wounded, so with his soon-to-come return to the junkie life, he’s experienced a kind of death and resurrection. He’s also being taken to a hospital, where they’ll give him such drugs as morphine for his pain. He’s going to “the fattest pharmacy in town.”
He’s going to drug heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Pharma.