My Own Private Idaho

My Own Private Idaho


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Idaho is where it began, where it exists for Mike (River Phoenix), memories of a mother who deserted him, of some kind of home. He's a teenage lost boy, hustling sex for money on the streets of Portland, Oregon. The sleaze sheen of his dangerous profession is spiked with decadent fantasy, as middle-aged male clients indulge their fairytale perversions. Mike has no reason to doubt that life is a sickness.

He has a habit of fainting and dreaming. The fainting is narcolepsy, a stress-related chemical imbalance that throws him into deep sleep without warning. His dreams are of Idaho - flat, wide country, an unpainted wooden farmhouse, an empty road, a blonde woman in a short skirt with a crying child.

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Even among his fellow vagrants, Mike is secretive and unapproachable, as if living somewhere else inside his head. His friend Scott (Keanu Reeves) has a glamour, way out of reach. He's the mayor's son, on a deep rebellious ride, slumming with low life, selling his body like the rest, but having the confidence of someone who understands where he comes from and where he's going.

"My dad doesn't know I'm just a kid," he says. "He thinks I'm a threat."

There is a film within a film. The layers of illusion and allusion block the natural flow of narrative. Scott appears as Prince Hal, speaking Shakespearean gutter poetry with the fearless pretension of a born leader. Fat Bob (William Richert), in flowing robe, spouting prophet jabber, a thief, homosexual and coke addict, old enough to be someone's father, is the group's Falstaff.

"We have earned the chimes at midnight," he announces to the bare air, stumbling through the debris of a downtown slum.

They squat in a condemned hotel, where the lack of furniture adds to a sense of theatricality, as if all the world's a stage. Scott is special because of his background. Mike is unique because of his illness. Fat Bob is necessary because of his language. The rest are young, adept, generous and corrupted. Their revolution, which may be little more than a survival technique, lacks idealism and hope.

Scott dresses like an effeminate stud when meeting his father in his office, but it's an act of defiance, not an insult. He has made himself independent, inviting experience - sex, crime, deprivation - to feel the pulse of his generation at its lowest level. When he's 21, he's going to walk away, turn his back, join the suited classes and claim his birthright. Not so, Mike. He has no birthright. He yearns for family, for affection, for the truth of his mother's infidelity.

"I could love someone, even if I'm not paid for it," he tells Scott, in a rare moment of lucidity. Meaning, "let it be you".

Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy caused tremors amongst critics when it came out three years before this. Its unsentimental look at the anarchic lifestyle of a druggie cell had the surprise bonus of William Burroughs, as a defrocked priest, and Matt Dillon, outgrown his pretty boy pose, giving an unfashionably savage performance. Here, the film buffs bellowed, was a modern hero of American neo-realism.

My Own Private Idaho refuses to be a replica. It doesn't stick to the rules and, therefore, will disappoint those who felt that Cowboy represented the tell-it-like-it-is school of blue-collar collage, as exemplified by Raymond Carver's fiction. It is altogether more personal, less naturalistic, close to society's raw wounds, yet offering no medication, occasionally romantic, often desolate, never settling in one place long enough to be truly understood.

Mike's search for his mother that takes he and Scott back to Idaho, to his brother's mobile home, to Rome where Scott falls in love with an Italian girl, is another story to the pseudo-Elizabethan pastiche at the heart of the film. When Scott is with Mike, he is his own man. When he's at the squat, he's the rebel prince in Falstaff's court and the plot feels manipulated to fit a hustler's Henry IV.

The sense that Van Sant is being too clever by half doesn't diminish the power of his imagery. There is nothing polite nor pampered about this production. Keanu Reeves conveys Scott's many qualities with a hint of his Bogus Adventure and a touch of his Point Break.

Isolated from the pack, out on the edge of the world, River Phoenix gives the kind of commitment that maims actors for life. Locked into a dysfunctional psyche, he searches in vain for escape and his suffering, made worse by an inability to express emotion, is so painfully true it hurts to witness.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2005
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A friendship that develops between two teenage hustlers.
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Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, Udo Kier, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Chiara Caselli, Grace Zabriskie, Tom Troupe

Year: 1991

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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