Faithfully based on the written experiences of James Fogle, imprisoned on a 22-year sentence for narcotics charges, the story focuses in on the drug-stealing and drug-taking exploits of junkie Bob Hughes (Dillon), his junkie wife Dianne (Lynch) and their junkie friends Rick (Le Gros) and Nadine (Graham).
This is the sort of film that the art of movie rental was designed for. A minor critical triumph on its theatrical release in 1989, Drugstore Cowboy never quite hit home commercially, its potentially bleak subject matter perhaps not the best guarantee of a good night out.
On video or DVD, however, this tale of a merry band of early 70s junkies deserves a much wider audience and, at just a couple of squid for nearly 100 minutes of gripping viewing, is about as good value for money as it's possible to get. What sets this apart from the usual tripe spewed out about the so-called drug culture is the overriding sense it gives of actually having been there, taken that, and thoroughly enjoyed it at the time.
Set in beautiful Portland, Oregon rather than the token ghetto, and peppered with everyday dialogue and everyday events rather than the usual moralising hysteria that tends to come with this territory, the acute air of realism only flags in the last half-hour with Bob's unexplained and wholly unexpected conversion to a quieter and drug-free way of life. And while his attempt to kick the habit is never portrayed as a simple act of willpower, it's hard to avoid a suspicion that this Damascus-like turnaround is a late attempt by Van Sant and company to balance the overwhelming impression built up so far - namely, that taking drugs can be a whole lot of fun if you happen to like that sort of thing.
Best of all in this intriguing little film is Matt Dillon, the perfect cool cat of the day, governed by all sorts of odd superstitions and the driving force behind the whole operation. And special mention too for William S. Burroughs - yes, that one - as the veteran junkie priest, still hoping for the ultimate fix to such an extent that it's hard not to share his glee when Dillon presents him with a neat little bottle of just what he's always wanted. A minor gem.
Verdict: One of those cult classics well worth investigating even if you have never so much as smoked a cigarette in your life.