At the time the film was made, the source novel by Fogle was unpublished. It was later published in 1990, by which time Fogle had been released from prison. Fogle, like the characters in his story, was a long-time drug user and dealer.
The film was a critical success and currently holds a rare 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8/10 based on 27 reviews.
Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a crew of drug addicts consisting of him, his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his best friend, Rick (James LeGros), and Rick's girlfriend, a teenager named Nadine (Heather Graham). Together, they travel across the U.S. Pacific Northwest in 1971, supporting their drug habits by robbing pharmacies and hospitals.
After successfully robbing a Portland, Oregon pharmacy, they go straight home to use the drugs they just stole. During the process of getting high, a local low-life named David (Max Perlich) visits the group in search of hard-to-find dilaudid. Bob lies and says they have none but offers to trade him morphine for speed instead. David initially declines, but Bob talks him into trading anyway. After David leaves, the police bust down their door. The lead detective Gentry (James Remar) correctly assumes it was their group that has just committed the pharmacy robbery he's investigating. The police are unable to find the drugs because the group wisely buried them outside. However, in the process of searching, the police completely trash the group's house.
The group then moves into an apartment. Bob plans to get back at the police by setting up an elaborate scheme. The scheme succeeds, and one of the policemen is shot by a neighbor who thought the cop was a peeper thanks to Bob's scheme. The next day, Gentry (knowing Bob was behind it all) assaults Bob outside his apartment. Seeing the assault as a sign of a hex Rick and Nadine had previously brought upon the group by speaking about dogs, they leave their apartment to go "road tripping." One night on the road, they come across a drugstore with an open transom. They proceed to sneak in and rob the pharmacy, extremely pleased to find their haul includes vials of pure powdered dilaudid worth thousands of dollars each. Bob, using the logic "When you're hot, you're hot", convinces his wife he should finally rob the hospital he's always wanted to.
During the robbery, Bob is almost captured and the robbery is a complete failure. Upon arriving back at the motel, the group discovers Nadine has fatally overdosed by sneaking a bottle of dilaudid during their last score. To make matters worse, she has also put the "worst of all hexes" on them by leaving a hat on the bed. After temporarily storing Nadine's body in the motel's attic, they are alerted by the motel manager that their room was previously booked for a police convention, and they must check out immediately. Bob, under tremendous anxiety and stress while having visions of handcuffs and prison, manages to sneak the body out of the motel in a large duffel bag. Right before burying Nadine in a remote forest, Bob alerts his wife that he is going to get clean and begin a 28-day methadone program. She is shocked and confused by Bob's sudden dramatic decision. He asks her to get clean with him, but she declines, telling him, "You know I can't".
Going their separate ways, Bob moves back to Portland into a long-stay motel and gets a low-level manufacturing job. One day at the methadone clinic, he sees an elderly drug-addicted priest named Tom (William S. Burroughs). They reminisce about the old days when drugs weren't so demonized. Another day, on the street, Bob runs into David, who is bullying a kid who supposedly owes David money. Bob stops David from hurting the kid any further, and the kid runs away, much to David's disgust.
After adjusting to his new life, Bob is visited by both Dianne and Gentry on separate occasions. Gentry warns Bob the policeman Bob got shot has been making threats and might act on them. Dianne reveals she and Rick are now in a relationship and that he is in charge of their new group. Dianne then asks Bob what happened out on the road to make him suddenly change his life so drastically. He answers that Nadine's death, the hex she put on them with the hat, and the possibility of serious prison time all contributed to his eventual decision. He then reveals to her a deal he made with a higher power that if he could safely get Nadine's body out of the motel, past the cops, and into the ground without being caught, he would then straighten his life out in return.
After explaining this to Dianne, he begs her to stay the night with him, but she declines. Before she leaves, she gives Bob a package of drugs as a gift. Bob, instead of using them and relapsing, gives the drugs to the priest, Tom, who is very pleased. Upon re-entering his room, Bob is attacked by two masked figures. The leader turns out to be David. They think Bob is still an addict and has drugs on him. Bob tells them the truth, that he is clean and doesn't have any drugs, but David doesn't believe him and ends up shooting him. A neighbor hears the shot and calls 911. While Bob is getting loaded onto an ambulance, Gentry asks him numerous times who shot him and if it was the policeman. Bob tells Gentry it was "the hat" and "the TV baby".
During the ambulance ride, Bob thinks out loud how he got in his situation. He comes to the realization that no matter how hard he tries, he can never fully escape the drug life. He also jokes about how he now has a free ticket to the "fattest pharmacy in town." The film ends with him saying, "I'm alive", and, "I hope they can keep me alive."Matt Dillon as Robert "Bob" Hughes
Kelly Lynch as Dianne
James LeGros as Rick
Heather Graham as Nadine
Max Perlich as David
James Remar as Gentry
Grace Zabriskie as Mrs. Hughes
William S. Burroughs as Tom
Tom Waits was Van Sant's first choice to play the lead although the finance company would not support Van Sant if he had cast him. Officially the reason given was that Waits was appearing in another movie they were financing although Van Sant has said he suspected the Oscar win of Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film they had also financed, had made them want a lead who could win an Oscar.
Drugstore Cowboy was filmed mainly around Portland, Oregon, including in an area in the Pearl District that used to be a railyard, with a viaduct going over it. The Lovejoy Columns, which formerly held up the viaduct and feature outsider artwork, are featured in the movie.
The soundtrack includes songs that are contemporaneous with the film's setting, along with original music by Elliot Goldenthal. It is one of his earliest works; in it he does not use an orchestra but a whole range of instruments treated in a synthesizer. The score and soundtrack were also the first that Goldenthal worked on with Richard Martinez, a music producer whose "computer expertise and sound production assistance" became the basis for frequent subsequent collaborations. AllMusic rated this soundtrack three stars out of five.
The film was very well received critically and is listed on the Top Ten lists of both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, for films released in 1989. It holds a rare 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8/10 based on 27 reviews. Review aggregator Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 82 based on 15 reviews, indicating "Universal Acclaim".
Drugstore Cowboy won the following awards:L.A. Film Critics Association (1989) — Best Screenplay (Dan Yost, Gus Van Sant)
National Society of Film Critics (1989) — Best Film, Best Director
Independent Spirit Award (1989) — Best Male Lead (Matt Dillon), Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Male (Max Perlich), Best Supporting Female (Heather Graham)
New York Film Critics Circle (1989) — Best Screenplay