My Own Private Idaho is a personal statement and a River Phoenix memorial
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“There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road—I mean, exactly like this road. It’s one kind of place. One of a kind, like someone’s face. Like a fucked-up face.” —River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho
It’s been 20 years since River Phoenix’s death, and Gus Van Sant’s 1991 road movie My Own Private Idaho is still almost unbearably sad to watch. It isn’t just that Phoenix’s charisma and promise are on full display, though Idaho ranks alongside Running On Empty and Dogfight among his best roles. It’s the way Van Sant’s script leaves Phoenix in a state of constant vulnerability, like a turtle without its shell. At times, his character’s narcolepsy—in which he suddenly, unpredictably falls into a deep sleep—feels like a narrative contrivance, an ongoing deus ex machina calibrated to pivot the story in whatever direction Van Sant decides to take it. But it’s really more a metaphor for a lonely, loveless drifter who has no defense against a world that can take his money, his heart, and his life. Phoenix and his character aren’t one and the same, but they share an openness and sensitivity that’s keenly felt in My Own Private Idaho. They’re prey for a rapacious world.
Though not part of an official trilogy, My Own Private Idaho was the last of a three-film opening run for Van Sant before he applied his talent to adaptations like Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and To Die For, and director-for-hire projects like Good Will Hunting. These films aren’t exactly impersonal, but they found Van Sant drifting away from the personal core of Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and Idaho, all of which are set in his native Portland and the Pacific Northwest, and all of which deal with illicit love and self-destructive impulses, whether it’s the pursuit of doomed romance or the grim chasm of drug addiction and ill-advised sex. Van Sant’s early artistry flowered a decade later with his “Death trilogy”—2002’s Gerry, 2003’s Elephant, and 2003’s Last Days—and he returned again to similar terrain with 2007’s Paranoid Park, a portrait (in part, anyway) of Portland skate kids living on society’s fringes. But by then, his art had grown more conceptual, with a marked distance from the raw nerves of his early work.
In a way, the battle between the conceptual and the personal plays out between the two Portland hustlers at the center of My Own Private Idaho. Phoenix stars as Mike Waters, first seen passing out on an empty stretch of highway in Idaho, where he dreams in old-home-movie format about resting in his mother’s arms. Whether such a scene ever played out in his past is dubious, but his childlike desire for comfort, from his mother or from someone who loves him, motivates nearly every action he takes in the film. Back in Portland, Mike joins a collective of homeless gay hustlers who convene in public parks and poorly lighted spots, and occasionally bunk under tarps on building rooftops or gather in the lobby of a condemned hotel. They all have harrowing stories to tell:
The object of Mike’s affection is Scott Favor, the rebellious scion of an elite Portland family, who’s taken to hustling mainly as a way to embarrass his father. Mike and Scott are best friends, but Scott stands apart from the group because he’s merely dabbling in a lifestyle he can abandon the moment the old man kicks it and he can collect the inheritance. As Scott thwarts his real father—shades of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which Van Sant incorporates boldly into the proceedings—he seeks guidance of sorts from Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a haggard middle-aged schemer whose authority Scott eventually seeks to undermine, too. Scott accompanies Mike to Idaho (and later, Italy) to search for Mike’s long-lost mother, but any intimacy is thwarted by Scott’s repeated declaration that he only has sex with men when there’s money involved.
My Own Private Idaho represents the shotgun marriage of two individual stories that, like Mike and Scott themselves, don’t really belong together: a road movie about Mike’s fruitless search for love and security, and an arch modern retelling of Shakespeare, with Scott playing a role distinctly abstracted from the gritty day-to-day of his temporary street-hustling brethren. It’s common to hear people talk about My Own Private Idaho as two movies in one—conversations that usually end with a preference for Mike’s heartrending tale of unrequited love winning out over Keanu Reeves doing Shakespeare. But the impulse to treat the film like competing anthology hours misses how gracefully Van Sant incorporates the two stories while making a point of how distant they are from each other. Even when they occupy the same space, like the campground the characters improvise in an Idaho field, they’re worlds apart, and no amount of yearning on Mike’s part can bridge the gap.
Though Van Sant was a brilliant stylist from the start—Mala Noche, shot for peanuts on 16mm, has a grainy black-and-white texture that gives its romantic odyssey a dreamlike quality—the road-movie looseness of My Own Private Idaho gave him an opportunity to express himself like never before. The stress that triggers Mike’s narcolepsy—the way he tenses up and his eyes flutter evokes a machine overloading and shutting down—also gets channeled into gorgeous time-lapse shots of nature gathering its forces, or dreams of his mother collapsing into a vision of home dropping from the sky. (That piece of symbolism would be too on-the-nose if it weren’t so bewitching.) There are wonderful vignettes and interludes squeezed comfortably into the narrative, too, like a hare-brained scheme to knock off a band of indie-music promoters while pretending to be a pink-robed cult, or strange encounters with tricks, like one who wants Mike to scrub his already-immaculate house in a Dutch-boy getup, or a wealthy dowager (Grace Zabriskie) who requires the services of three hustlers to “get warmed up.” And whenever the film threatens to get too dreamy, Van Sant pulls it back to earth with real-sounding stories of jobs gone bad and young lives lived on the precipice.
Though Idaho is half-built around the arch conceit of a hustler acting out Shakespeare—a character who grows less human as he’s drawn back into Portland’s high society—it challenges Mala Noche as the most personal film of Van Sant’s career, and with greater artistic investment. Van Sant’s close identification with troubled outsiders, his feel both for literature and the poetry of the streets, the way he uses shots of lonely highways, condemned buildings, landscapes, and natural phenomena to suggest the internal lives of his characters—all of these gifts are on full display in My Own Private Idaho, yet it never seems like a random repository for peculiar thoughts and visuals, like Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. And for that, we can loop back to credit Phoenix again: His presence can make every scene seem authentic and true, and the film now feels like a sweet, hazy, heartsick memory of him.
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