Like the Pacific Northwest landscape that serves as one of its major characters, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho has both dramatic peaks and flat stretches.
In the latest film from the director of Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves star as two pretty-boy drifters in the Boise-Portland corridor. Save for their common condition, the two couldn't be more different. Mike is a motherless child who roams the road because he has nowhere to go. Scott is the Portland mayor's son, a wasted-youth tourist who stands to inherit a fortune upon his 21st birthday. As they hustle up and back across the state line, sleeping on tenement rooftops, stealing motorcycles to cover the long stretches of highway, giving blowjobs to old men for pocket money, Mike and Scott offer a rare tour of America's underbelly, halfway between Midnight Cowboy and "Wayne's World." Bill and Ted's Triple X-cellent Adventure, anyone?
Van Sant doesn't seem interested in investigating the tragedy of the street prostitute (if that's what you want, wait a few weeks for Ken Russell's Whore), or even in offering a cynical, downbeat meditation on aimlessness. Instead My Own Private Idaho is breezy, existential, and limbo-intensive. Tormented by the absence of his mother, Mike has a habit of cracking under pressure, a process that involves preliminary convulsions and then a deep, twitching sleep. That's how we first meet him, laid out on an Idaho highway, lost in a phantasmagoria where clouds twist and vanish in the blue sky of his childhood. For the diagnosticians in the audience, Van Sant even provides a close-up of a dictionary page, highlighting the "narcolepsy" entry. (The way the camera lingers on the entry creates the impression that Van Sant is picking film topics by reading straight through the dictionary, "narc" for Drugstore Cowboy, "narcolepsy" for this film. Wait until 1999 or so, for the premiere of Narwhal!.) While he dreams, Mike remembers the tiny house where he lived with his mother; when he wakes, all he has is a barren highway. The choice seems clear.
Though Mike is the emotional center of the film, his quirky spinelessness is too inwardly directed to create any structure in his life. It's only natural, then, that he should fall in love with Scott. Scott has direction. Scott commands attention. Scott is dominant and compelling. In fact, he views his entire street-hustling career as a calculated prelude to his return to the fold. If that sounds like a familiar plot, then you've been boning up on your Shakespeare - in circumstance and disposition, Scott is the spitting image of the Bard's Prince Hal, the manipulative protagonist of Henry IV who spends his youth in taverns, consorting with thieves, and then turns his back on them to assume the throne. Van Sant loyally stages many scenes from the play, even down to the introduction of a Falstaff character (William Richert) and an exact re-creation of the Gad's Hill robbery double-cross.
Both thematically valuable and cinematically fascinating - in movies, any use of Henry IV must also be considered in the context of Orson Welles's 1967 Chimes at Midnight - the updated Shakespeare does not completely succeed. Last time out, in Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant coaxed a nervous, jivey, brilliant performance from Matt Dillon. Here he doesn't fare quite so well. Though Phoenix gives an incredibly affecting performance, Reeves is uneven, and the persistence of his oddly formal diction cripples his credibility.
The film picks up speed in its second half, when the Henry IV subtext is temporarily suspended and Mike and Scott begin questing in earnest for Mike's mother. The comedy loosens up and flows, and there are some great supporting performances, including Udo Kier (a veteran of the films of both Andy Warhol and Rainer Werner Fassbinder) as Hans, a car-parts salesman and former cabaret performer. In this post-Shakespeare section, the sexual dimension of the hustler's life receives its fullest investigation. Both Mike and Scott turn tricks for money, but as Mike explains in a tender campfire scene, he also wants to find someone to love. Scott, ever the pragmatist, insists that it's strictly business. That Mike is gay and Scott just experimenting complicates matters even further.
As it ambles along from welfare hotels to public parks to shoebox-size Chinese restaurants, Van Sant's treatment of the Northwest has none of the sanitized magic of Northern Exposure and none of the supernatural creepiness of Twin Peaks. He's more honest about its seedy pockets and vastness, and his belief in the strength of emptiness is evocative of Jim Jarmusch, and also Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. My Own Private Idaho is particularly reminiscent of Robert Frank's 1987 Candy Mountain, which stars David Johansen as a session musician who hits the road in search of a legendary guitar maker. As with Drugstore Cowboy, the late Sixties and early Seventies are the operative years for Van Sant's direction. The film's camerawork is often gimmicky and baldly subjective - when Mike squints at the horizon, the screen irises to a small circle to represent his perspective.
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If you know the Shakespeare, the end of My Own Private Idaho will come as no surprise. Even if you don't, Scott's rejection of the vagrant's life won't shock you. But the sudden reinstatement of reality is still heart-wrenching, and the film ends as it begins, finding the final truth in the sight of Mike twitching in his deep sleep, dreaming of a world where he is loved.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
Written and directed by Gus Van Sant; with River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Udo Kier, William Richert, and James Russo.
Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.