Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Very loosely and even more creatively based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, and Henry V, My Own Private Idaho is one of the most human and affectionate films to be set in a world of male narcoleptic prostitutes and hustlers, backstabbing and mental deficiency. Gus Van Sant embarks his two homeless protagonists on a journey of self-discovery and then stands back and watches them discover themselves, each other, the night, the road, the desert.
I always know where I am by the way the road looks. Scott (Keanu Reeves), a groomed, suited, Shakespearean outlaw living on the streets while waiting to inherit his rich father’s fortune, and Mike (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic, damaged and sensitive young man, desperately looking for a hug wherever he can get it, leave the streets of Portland where they support themselves through prostitution and petty crime and travel to Idaho and Italy in search of themselves and Mike’s mother. Somehow this sounds like a deep and mature spiritual journey, but it’s not. Or rather it is, but not in the way that one would think. This quest is not the answer to the need to escape the melancholy, the memories, the emotional desolation that sleeping in a different bed every night is known to bring. For Scott and Mike it’s a fun, easy, seize-the-day escape. For there is no reason to cause a fuss about any kind of overly meaningful self-discovery, any kind of spiritual quest, since ultimately, to live is so temporary, absurd and funny, that it should be taken as frivolously as possible.
Like I just know that I’ve been here before. Yes, this journey is a philosophical one. With the difference that no matter how lost, damaged and detached the two main characters are, they are both in need of acceptance, recognition and love. And they seek it, find it and lose it in stages, somewhere in between a dream and the real life, they don’t know where exactly, and the audience doesn’t seem to know either. The film’s script, direction and acting follow no rule and all together get lost in a world of hallucination and dreamy freedom. The characters are affectionate and sentimental, the desert is their bed and the highway a familiar face that keeps them on the right track.
I just know that I’ve been stuck here… like this one fucking time before, you know that? RiverPhoenix as Mike is ethereal, flowing and almost a blur. The audience is never sure whether he’s awake or still half-asleep, he’s making his way through the film day-dreaming, imagining, picturing, remembering and eventually nodding off all of a sudden. But this is exactly what makes him so engaging in his performance and what makes Mike so original. His eyes are constantly cloudy, his walk keeps him that little bit slower than the rest of his pack of colourful outlaws, he follows, he accepts, but still he suffers in his inability to show emotion and his desire to feel the love.
There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road. I mean, exactly like this road. Scott is a confident, glamorous, rebellious male prostitute who is merely just biding his time performing small-time crime and sleeping around with a different person every night, waiting for his father to pass his fortune on to him. Keanu Reeves gives the character looks, grace, humour and that little bit of mystery that none of the other characters have. Although Mike is easy to read and even easier to relate to and although the rest of the pack are just simple-minded, playful and lively, Keanu Reeves gives his character that certain distance, coldness, aloofness and difficulty to comprehend, which makes him the perfect other side of Mike’s coin.
It’s one kind of place. One of a kind. William Richert’s Bob, the big, fallen-from-grace man who leads the pack of crooks, is also worth noting for standing opposite River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves just as brilliantly. His performance is the perfect comedy and tragedy in-between as he takes his audience from self-consciousness and pain to wit and a lack of seriousness about everything. In fact the entire group of small time criminals keeps it colourful, light, funny and seemingly superficial. The struggle, ache and isolation are there, but a brave and somewhat dim face is put in front of them, which results to the film never getting heavy, although it never deals with anything even remotely light.
Like someone’s face. Like a fucked-up face. It’s worth mentioning that My Own Private Idaho is influenced by literature, life, cinema, but copies none of that. Gus Van Sant’s writing remains original, despite the many lines that are borrowed from Shakespeare and his direction is as authentic, as free and as out-there as you can get it. This is a film about the unhappy ones, but it is determined to tell their story in a romantic, human and affecting kind of way. It is also a film that refuses to be put in a genre, follow any rule, mature its characters, provide us with answers or allow to be understood on any level. That’s its beauty and that’s its uniqueness.
My Own Private Idaho at IMDb
My Own Private Idaho at Wikipedia
My Own Private Idaho at Rotten Tomatoes
My Own Private Idaho (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V at Wikipedia