Gus Van Sant’s career has gone through as many metamorphoses as any modern director, from lyrical indie upstart to middlebrow journeyman, Bela Tarr-influenced master to, briefly, pop art experimenter who thought he should remake Hitchcock. Each phase has its supporters (OK, maybe not the last one), but he was never more thrilling or more personal than with his early films, which show a man who made impressionistic films that heightened their characters’ emotions rather than obscuring them. That reaches its peak in 1991 with “My Own Private Idaho,” a film that’s part retelling of “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” part original story about gay hustlers, part road movie, and, improbably, a cohesive story of loneliness, rootlessness, and pain.
River Phoenix stars as Mike, a narcoleptic hustler in Portland who’s in love with his best friend, Scott (Keanu Reeves), another hustler who’s actually the heir to a vast fortune. Hal rebels against his rich father while knowing there’s only so long he can stay with Mike and Bob (William Richert), the film’s Falstaff to Scott’s Prince Hal. When Mike decides to go on the road and find his mother, who abandoned him when he was a boy, Scott agrees to accompany him, but their time together will be limited and painful.
Van Sant indulges in a number of his most experimental touches, like juxtaposing Mike’s orgasm with the image of a barn falling from the sky or directing sex scenes as a series of tableaus (not to mention rewriting Shakespeare moments to allow for gay hustler and drug references), but he contrasts these flourishes with moments of incredible candor, like a number of hustlers regaling horrifying stories of their worst, most dangerous dates. Reeves brings devil-may-care, prankish attitude to his prince gone rogue, the strongest work of his career. Phoenix, meanwhile, gives his most vulnerable, wounded performance (saying a lot) as Mike. A mid-film campfire scene best exemplifies what made the actor (who died too young at 23) great, his confession of his love for Scott coming out with hesitance rather than histrionics, a sign of someone who’s had such rough luck that he knows he has to be careful with how much of his soul he bares. It’s a moment of incredible tenderness for Phoenix and for Van Sant, who never made a more humane or more fascinating film.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Serena Donadoni, The Cinema Girl
Shakespeare’s brash Hal is a gay hustler, but My Own Private Idaho belongs to tender narcoleptic River Phoenix and the vast Western skies.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
The stylistic eclecticism is so far-ranging that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant’s poetic imagination and feeling for his characters are so lyrically focused that almost everything works, and even the parts that show some strain – such as an extended hommage to Orson Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” that’s stitched into the plot like crazy-quilt patchwork – may excite you nonetheless for their audacity. Phoenix has certainly never been better, and Reeves does his best with a part that suffers from consisting largely of Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. Read more.
More thoughts from the web:
Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
Although the central characters are prostitutes, the movie is not really about sex, which does not interest either Mike or Scott very much. What Mike wants is love, and by love what he really means is someone to hold him and care for him. He was deeply damaged as a child, and now he seeks shelter; it is a matter of indifference whether he finds it with a man or a woman. The achievement of this film is that is wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass; this is a movie about two particular young men, and how they pass their lives. Read more.
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
“My Own Private Idaho” lacks the dramatic punchiness of “Drugstore Cowboy,” yet it’s a rich, audacious experience. The movie isn’t really about being a hustler (or being gay). It is, rather, an elusive poetic fable about a young man without a home, a family, a self. It’s about rootlessness as a spiritual state. Mike keeps having grainy, home-movie flashbacks to the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a kid. She’s his only real memory, yet his visions are so fleeting they’re like borrowed experiences. Essentially, Mike has no past — and so he doesn’t quite have a present, either. Read more.
Dave Kehr, The Chicago Tribune
There is not much more to the plot than that, but this is a film of breathtakingly free and constant movement. The device of Mike`s narcolepsy allows Van Sant to make wildly impulsive, radical transitions (Mike falls asleep and awakes in another scene, another state or even in another country). And more than that, it allows Van Sant to create complex, poetic montage sequences that, in mingling dream and reality through poetically related images, pick up where Sergei Eisenstein`s most extreme experiments in associational editing left off back in the 1920s. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
Though Van Sant was a brilliant stylist from the start…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.)…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. Read more.
It is one of Van Sant’s more charmingly brazen conceits (which extends as far as having one of the characters drink a bottle of Falstaff beer) to replay much of Welles’ version of the play with the words archly changed (“a fair hot wench in flame-color’d taffeta” becomes “a fair hustler in black leather”) to fit the context of gay street life in today’s Portland. Though the jest is undoubtedly more fun the more you know the original material, the fact that it plays at all is no small accomplishment. Read more.