Pride Month Review: My Own Private Idaho (1991)
My Own Private Idaho is about Mike, a narcoleptic street hustler, and his best friend (and crush) Scott, a trust fund brat who lives on the streets because he chooses to, who travel the Pacific Northwest looking for that next score. As Mike has strange visions of his mother that bring on his bouts of narcolepsy, he starts to yearn to reconnect with her. Scott is game to go along as he rejects his father's way of life until he can't anymore. The men range from Idaho to Rome and back again with stops in Seattle and Portland along the way. The film stars River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Chiara Caselli, Grace Zabriskie, Tom Troupe, Udo Kier, and Flea. The film is written and directed by Gus Van Sant. The film is available for rental or purchase on all digital and physical media platforms.
I just want you to know where I'm coming from with this review, I didn't like this movie. It's chaotic, confounding, affected, and pretentious. This is a film someone in film school makes when they think they're a genius. It feels like several different movies smashed into one without differentiation between the styles and genres.
I nearly gagged when the hustlers began using an affected, Shakespearean language. Shakespeare's work having been loosely adapted for parts of the film. This piecemeal approach is cacophonous, eye-rolling and laughable. Why, why, why did this have to be in here when it has only so little to do with the grander themes of the work? It's about as startling as when a couple of the boys tell stories, what have to be actual stories, of "dates" gone wrong. These stories are incongruously with the other action happening in the Chinese restaurant, minimizing their stories and trauma and making it a flighty silly affair like all of Mike's "dates" have been because Mike's "dates" mostly stop before sex can even occur.
Though, while the whole is a mess, there are parts that are terrific. Of course, I'm writing of "that" scene. The scene we have witnessed even without seeing this film. The scene where Mike and Scott, in the middle of nowhere, finally alone with each other, sit around a fire. Mike bares his soul to Scott, coming out to him because he's not like Scott. Mike's not "gay for pay." Mike's gay and he's in love with Scott. Scott obviously feels a tenderness toward Mike, but he lets him down easy, even calling him over for a hug. Yet, like all unrequited love that's made known, Scott becomes distant after that. Almost as if to prove he's never going to be with Mike, Scott falls in love with Carmella, the woman they meet in Italy, and he marries her, throwing off the guise of a street hustler. As the two men see each other for the final time across the funeral for Scott's "true father," Bob, whom he rejected, and his biological father, Jack, whom he finally accepted, that's the last they will ever see of each other and the longing on both of their faces is devastating.
Another piece that's done really interestingly are the sex scenes that are played out. They aren't structured as two people writhing and bumping against one another in a maudlin facsimile of human sexuality, they are posed shots of a proposed sequence. The first time is the boys when they meet Hans in Snake River. This one is funny and sexy as they pose with Hans' trinkets and toys. They're like Renaissance paintings, a motion captured on canvas. This is much like Scott and Carmella's scene later with a lot of longing and sun-drenched skin showing their act was about love and the other about pleasure. It was a really cool way to complete these scenes.
The best piece by far, though is Keanu Reeves' performance. His range, his humor, and yes, his dramatic chops are all on display as he eats up every scene he's in. I will never tire of reminding people he's a good actor. The way he handled the ludicrous nature of the Shakespearean scenes proves that. He goes toe to toe with William Richert who plays Bob and despite the affected language, Reeves pulls off a delicate balance so well. It makes me curious what he could have done with the Benedick role in Much Ado About Nothing instead of the kind of nothing role of Don John.
The Scott storyline is the strongest storyline in the film, likely because of the cribbing from Shakespeare. I wanted to be interested in the Mike storyline, but none of it is clearly explained. As soon as we have a sort of clue and a new question, Mike has a fit and we lose the thread. What was with the whole brother/dad situation? Why did mom leave? Is he having fits while he's doing non-kink hustles because he's got complicated family issues? It's frustratingly unclear.
The parts of My Own Private Idaho that I like, I really like a lot. The whole is just far too much of a mess and it proves why Gus Van Sant as a filmmaker is so much of a hit and miss for me. When he's on he's really on. The queer elements and frank discussions of sexuality in My Own Private Idaho are not enough to keep me from suggesting you skip this film entirely. Check out Van Sant's more commercial, but far more coherent, Milk and for a departure that has made queer people idolize Nicole Kidman, 1995's To Die For is delicious.