Director Gus Van Sant’s 1989 feature Drugstore Cowboy is surprising in that it manages to tackle heavy subject matter while remaining remarkably light on its feet. It moves at a steady but unhurried pace and gives humor and heartbreak equal time. The story concerns a crew of junkies in the Pacific Northwest who rob drugstores to maintain their high, and Van Sant achieves the nigh-impossible by treating the issue with an understanding of both the allure of addiction and the horrors that it can lead to. Charges that it glamorizes drug use carry a shard of truth: early scenes of the gang shooting up are rendered as dreamily blissful, and Matt Dillon is casually seductive as Bob Hughes, the slim, clever, and undeniably cool leader of the crew. But one doesn’t easily shake the image of the bluing corpse that causes Bob to try to kick his habit later on, nor forget the lingering, melancholy uncertainty of Drugstore Cowboy’s final frames.

In this fullness of perspective the film owes a considerable debt to its source material, a then-unpublished novel of the same name by James Fogle, a convict who based the book on his own experiences (a paperback edition of Drugstore Cowboy hit bookshelves a year after the film’s release, with Dillon and his co-star Kelly Lynch featured on the cover). Yet the book both benefits and suffers as a result of Fogle’s close connection with the material. It bears a dedication, “To all the poor junkies that fell around me that summer of 1974” and “my old pards…who all died either that summer or shortly afterward in connection with the use and traffic of drugs,” and perhaps that goes some ways toward explaining Fogle’s occasional inability to write about the events of the story with detachment. There are lengthy passages condemning police and politicians (“Jesus, Bob thought, if the public ever began to realize how weird, kinky, and power hungry most policeman were, it would scare them to death. It seemed like the more they were lacking in any kind of compassion, and the more they called for severe punishment, the more likely it was that they were lawbreakers themselves.”) that are as thuddingly didactic as Van Sant’s film version is smartly balanced. The film benefits from the young director’s ability to stay a half-step back from it all. The adaptation – co-written by the director and screenwriter Dan Yost – is indeed an uncommonly good translation from print to celluloid, one that preserves all the best bits of the novel while trimming the fat, and even imbuing the material with an intriguing level of ambiguity absent from its original incarnation.

The most jarring difference between book and film is the disjunction between their respective endings. In both versions of Drugstore Cowboy, Bob gets shot by a smalltime hood named David (played by a weaselly Max Perlich in the movie) and as his story ends, he’s being loaded into an ambulance in a precarious condition somewhere between life and death. But in the novel the author heavy-handedly slams the door shut on Bob’s future with a single sentence, the last in the book. “Bob Hughes arrived at Memorial Hospital in downtown Portland, Oregon, at seven twentyone P.M. and was pronounced dead on arrival,” it reads. Fogle’s is a novel where the powers that be – addiction, fate, the cops – eventually conspire to destroy those caught up by forces larger than themselves, and the ending strikes a single despairing note.

Van Sant’s version does something a bit more delicate. In Fogle’s novel, when Gentry, the tough cop who’s been tailing Bob and his crew throughout, asks the ambulance attendant how Bob is doing, “The nurse looked up at Gentry, hesitated, and gave the thumbs-down gesture.” In the film, the same character poses a similar question and receives an indefinite hand gesture: it could go either way. Bob’s fate is not sealed here or in the narration that he provides shortly hereafter. “I was still alive,” Bob says just before the credits roll. “I hope they can keep me alive.” One can never quite decide if they keep him alive or not, and that ambiguity is a major part of what makes the film version resonate so strongly. It’s more satisfactory than Fogle’s ending and consistent with the rest of the film, which is gritty but more bemused than hopeless.

Van Sant’s ambiguous conclusion weighs on the mind the next day or invites repeat viewings, playing differently for different viewers, or differently for the same viewer on a different day. The final moments provoke a stream of questions. When Bob gives Gentry a message for Diane, then tells him to forget it (“I’ll tell her myself.”), is it because he believes he’ll win her back, or because he thinks they’ll both die young? And could his belief in a reunion with Diane, and his comment about the irony of being escorted by the cops to “the fattest pharmacy in town,” indicate the possibility of a relapse into addiction if Bob does survive? In the end, Van Sant leaves Bob, and the viewer, with a very slim thread of hope and no solid answers. The film has neither a happy ending nor a sad one, but rather offers a shrugging affirmation that hovers somewhere between the rueful and the defiantly wry – that’s life. As Bob reflects on his ambulance ride into the unknown, “You never know what’s going to happen next.”

U.S., 1989. 100 min., Avenue Pictures Productions

Victoria Large Written by: