My Own Private Idaho
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert
The story opens with a shot of Mike (Phoenix) on a road in the middle of nowhere. Although the movie will take us far from this location, this is the emotional core of the story. We learn more of Mike’s story, how he was a street hustler (re: prostitute) in the Northwest, befriending fellow street kid Scott (Reeves), who also happens to be the heir to a wealthy family. Adventures and hijinx ensue upon the arrival of Bob (Richert), a gay overlord of the displaced street kid family. Later, we follow Mike as he searches desperately for his birth mother, and feel for him as he falls in love with Scott.
The theme of those living on the outskirts of society has never held a huge attraction for me. This can probably be traced back to an overly ambitious Reading teacher in seventh grade who insisted we each do a massive project on The Outsiders. The overexposure turned that story into one of my least favorite ever, and I still get a bit of a bad taste in my mouth when exposed to it. However, despite not being quite my cup of tea, My Own Private Idaho is very good at portraying that life in a manageable, understandable, yet unsentimental fashion, somewhat on par with the world that Jon Voigt inhabits in Midnight Cowboy. That’s probably Van Sant’s greatest accomplishment in this film: while watching it, I was bemused and slightly intrigued. When it was over, I started thinking about what I had seen, and the emotional impact started to hit me. These are sad, sad people in this film, but Van Sant keeps the crippling depression at bay until the audience is ready to drink it in.
Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the utterly bizarre yet beguiling Shakespearean section in the middle. About a third of the film, that involving Bob and the street kids as opposed to Scott and Mike on their own, is a full on modern adaptation of Henry IV, with a touch of Henry V thrown in for good measure. Because of the source material, it’s also an adaptation of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1968), which is, you guessed it, an adaptation of Henry IV and Henry V. Van Sant is paying homage to Welles in these sequences. Bob is clearly Falstaff, wearing a bathrobe that quickly starts to pass as a cloak, and a costume that seems to have a codpiece. He practically speaks in iambic pentameter, as does everyone else around him. To his Falstaff is Scott’s Prince Hal, heir to a fortune but hell bent on sowing his wild oats amongst the street urchins. Even the soundtrack changes to one of Elizabethan instrumentation. It doesn’t take long to figure out that My Own Private Idaho has made the turn from loner story to Shakespeare.
This is my favorite part of the film because I have long been fascinated with how Shakespeare is adapted in film. I like the idea so much, I did an independent study course on it in college, one-on-one with my Shakespeare professor, despite the fact that I majored in Biochemistry. I love to see how society continues to find relevance in Shakespeare’s work by updating it and applying it to new situations.
Given, then, my fascination with this idea, I got legit excited when I started to see the Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho. Despite the fact that Keanu Reeves started to struggle with the dialogue here (while not lifted directly from the plays, the dialogue is significantly elevated in this section), I loved seeing how Van Sant equates Falstaff’s found family with that of Scott and Mike and street kid prostitutes.
Imagine my disappointment when, just as abruptly as we dive into a Shakespeare retelling, Van Sant takes us right out of it again. With the Shakespeare section, we explore Scott and his relationship with the street kids and his father. The non-Shakespeare section, though, focuses instead on Mike. This is a much sadder, considerably less farcical portion of the film. There is humor, to be sure (a German john named Hans was good for a handful of laughs, as was the john who dressed Mike up in aprons and called him “Little Dutch Boy”), but the tone is much more downbeat. Van Sant keeps it idiosyncratic enough (I very much enjoyed the “talking magazine covers” sequence) to prevent full blown pessimism, but it lacks the energy of the Shakespeare section.
Although I greatly preferred the Shakespeare section, it is in the other two thirds of the film that River Phoenix really shines as Mike. Mike is a narcoleptic, a fact told to us in the very opening of the film, and he collapses at terrifically inopportune times throughout the story. Scott is always there to take care of him, though. Puts him in a cab, pulls him to safety, keeps him out of trouble. It’s easy to see how Mike, a loner, emotionally attaches himself to Scott, a hedonist, only to ultimately find himself alone yet again. Phoenix is all physicality, twitchy and tetchy, with his constantly shrugged shoulders showing how he is withdrawing from his world. He is mumbling and fumbling, but when he slowly and awkwardly admits his feelings for Scott, it’s emotional and sad.
Ultimately, I felt too much of a disparity between the Shakespeare portion and the Mike’s story portion. While Van Sant plays freely with film composition, employing several little oddities (stop-motion camera shots, freeze frames that aren’t freeze frames, animation, iris camera shots), the two parts are too different for me to reconcile them to the same movie, the same story. Truth is, they aren’t the same story – Mike’s story versus Scott’s story – but it’s too far of a stretch to explain away as simply “idiosyncratic.” It’s far too cut and paste for my taste. I ended up wanting more of the Shakespeare section; make a movie of that on its own. I would love that. And while yes, Mike’s story is the heavy heart of the film, I’d rather watch the Shakespeare section.
Overall, My Own Private Idaho is a quirky yet un-melodramatic look at street culture and loneliness. The search for belonging is one that will never end for some. The end of the film, somewhat ambiguous, I read as an unhappy epilogue to a fairly unhappy story, indicative of fantasy and perhaps heaven, not reality. Others read it as a hopeful ending. It’s a good ending, though; fitting to the oddball little flick that Van Sant created.
Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10