Posted on 10/25/12 08:41 PM
My Own Private Idaho is an important movie for a variety reasons, it was debatably the last great role of versatile and gone far to soon actor River Phoenix, and his and fellow star Keanu Reeves placement as the stars attracted it a decent amount of attention bringing queer cinema and Gus van Sant to a new audience. Phoenix would burn a short three years later, and Reeves career had nowhere to go but down but this stands as one of 90s indie movies most endearing entries and in my own opinion the best movie talented director Gus van Sant ever made. Van Sant originally wrote the film back in the 1970s adapting it from the novel City of Night, but shelved it feeling he was failing to do justice to the power of the novel. After filming his breakthrough indie hit Mala Noche though and meeting two street hustlers named Mike and Scott he brought the script back out and combined it with some other passion projects he'd been wanting to make including an adaption of Henry IV through Henry V set in modern day and mixing it all together he came out with My Own Private Idaho. The studio tried to hijack the project and hand it off to other directors to approach it their own way after the success of Drugstore Cowboy, but van Sant clung to the film and was finally able to gain funding after sending the script to River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves who to his surprise were both eager to get on board. It was an intimate shoot, one with many stories cast and crew have related over the years, in which Reeves and Phoenix became close friends but did it pay off. Beyond the hype and triumph and tragedy involved in making this movie does it all work and pay off? Let's take a sleepy look.
Our protagonist at the beginning and through most of it is Mike (Phoenix) a narcoleptic street hustler who dreams of his mother that abandoned him at birth. Mike's best friend is Scott Favor (Reeves) the son of the mayor of Portland where the two primarily reside when they're not roaming the countryside. Scott abandons his father's world however too become a street hustler, part of a gang stationed in an abandoned apartment building and under the tutelage of portly middle aged Bob Pigeon (William Richert) and his assistant (who I mention because he's played by Flea). After getting into a bit of trouble Scott agrees to take Mike back to Idaho on his motorcycle in search of his mother in order to gain closure. After a tense reunion with Mike's disgruntled brother Richard (James Russo) the duo discover his mother's gone off to Italy and the duo set out on an adventure.
It may seem like typical indie movie abstraction, but I feel the film's narrative jumpiness comes from the aforementioned fact that van Sant basically made this out of three different scripts he was working on. And it shows it feels like three different stories rolled into one, one about two street hustlers roaming the countryside, one about two individuals one of whom secretly loves the other going on a trip to find a lost mother and one an adaption of the Henry plays complete with modernized Shakespearean dialogue. Ordinarily the transparency of this would be a major detriment and make it feel choppy but the commitment Reeves (surprisingly) and Phoenix (incredibly) give to the characters make them resonate through all three beats of the story so the different parts of it feel connected and it all works wonderfully. Phoenix is a powerhouse as Mike reminding us how we lost one of the greatest actors of all time in terms of expressiveness and just naturally embodying a character. He's a great physical actor as well as a gripping and at times heart rending emotional one and the breakaway best part of the film. But Reeves is no lightweight either a man who's a notoriously bad actor sells the shit out of Shakespearean dialogue segments which stand as my favorite parts of the film. They might feel weak and out of place were the movie structured more normally in the other parts but as it is it's just a wonderful excursion that's a surprising amount of fun. But while the actors tear it up on screen van Sant is not asleep behind the wheel either, this is a tremendously shot film with achingly gorgeous cinematography and some of the most refreshing and original shots of Gus's career a real standout from some of his other emotionally gripping but from a technical standpoint more flat work.
If you couldn't tell I really enjoyed this movie, from how it was pitched to me it seemed kind of up its own ass artsy but it stunned me as a dazzling if vaguely transparent movie on all fronts. It's a timeless film that is at once very 90s and yet could easily take place in the rebellious days of Easy Rider, and hell really wouldn't feel to out of place today. You can't help but be saddened as you watch the real chemistry and bond between Reeves and Phoenix onscreen that would be shattered a few years later by his death but still rejoice in the fact that Reeves gives such an astonishing though still distinctively his performance. This is a wonderful intimate movie, complete with actual home video footage from the Director spliced in at some points and well worth the watch for anyone so long as they are not homophobes. Yeah I may as well close with that, though there are only a few homosexual sex scenes this is still a very gay movie, just you know wonderfully so.