Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘My Own Private Idaho’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 18, 1991

Mike (River Phoenix), the young hustler in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho," can't ever seem to wipe the sleep from his eyes. Mike is narcoleptic and, at a moment's notice, tumbles uncontrollably into lullaby land, his fingers and feet twitching, gone to the world. This puts the droopy-eyed Mike at a serious occupational disadvantage -- there are certain times when you just shouldn't nod off -- but it's what gives Van Sant's priceless new movie its dreamy, free-floating eloquence.

Van Sant has taken us into the back streets of hustler life before. His first feature, "Mala Noches," took an unstinting, square-eyed look into the subculture of small-time crooks and flesh peddlers. In "Drugstore Cowboy," too, he embraced his junkie milieu, in a manner that was comic yet sternly clinical. By contrast, "Idaho" displays a cushier approach; he's easier on his characters here, more openly affectionate, perhaps even sentimental. The style is pillowy and caressing; it makes you feel as if you were gently hypnotized. As a result, the images seem to slip into your consciousness by an alternate route, not through the eyes but through the power of suggestion. Your eyelids, it whispers, are getting heavy. Heavy. Heavy ...

The implication here is that the movie is going straight from Mike's sleepy head into your own. The shifts in narrative aren't conventional; when Mike blacks out, so do we, and we keep waking up in different parts of the story and in different locales. Mike never seems to quite know where he is. We meet him first on a deserted stretch of Idaho highway; how he got there, or where he's going, we have no idea. But while he's standing there, looking down the road as it strings along to some endless nowhere, we are treated to little poetic snatches of memory, of his mother stroking his hair, and grainy snatches from his childhood, or of salmon swimming in slow motion.

Then, all of a sudden, we're in Seattle, where Mike has a rather unfortunate date, and then in Portland, where most of the story takes place. By then, Mike has hooked up with his old friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), who is also a hustler, but who, within the week, is scheduled to inherit a fortune from his father. To the extent that the movie is about anything -- anything tangibly thematic -- it's about the relationship between this mismatched pair: Mike, who has virtually nothing in the world, and Scott, whom Van Sant presents as a Shakespearean figure, a Prince Hal, carousing away his youth until the responsibilities of wealth fall onto his shoulders.

Mike is genuinely in love with Scott, but Scott, though he protects and cares for Mike, says men can't love each other, at least not for free. Though Mike says he understands, he makes a serious miscalculation. He thinks that Scott intends to continue his present life after receiving his inheritance, that the party will go on, with Scott as his benefactor. The other hustling, thieving denizens of the Portland streets, most of whom squat in an abandoned downtown hotel, operate under the same hope, especially their spiritual leader -- Van Sant's Falstaff figure -- Bob (William Richert). They expect Scott to bail them out. What they don't know is that Scott is merely biding his time, as Shakespeare's young Hal did, waiting to assume his proper place in society, a place that has no room for Bob or for Mike.

The Shakespearean conceit that Van Sant has set up here is a tricky one, but he goes all the way with it. The characters at times speak in a kind of mock-Elizabethan style -- on occasion speaking lines taken directly from the Bard. Sometimes he goes too far -- for example, when he has Bob swig from a bottle of Falstaff beer -- and the parallels become arch and labored. For the most part, though, the stylization is seamlessly integrated; it's ambitious, but he pulls it off.

It's because the movie is so tethered to Mike's cloud-bound sense of reality that he manages it. Through Mike's eyes nothing is quite real; reality floats, changes shape or evaporates. Phoenix brings an extraordinary quality of comic pathos to his character. He slouches through the movie, a walking blur, seemingly only half awake, but fully engaged. He seems always a beat behind, but Phoenix makes his blotto hesitations seem blessed; it's as if he had to clear way the cobwebs inside his head every time he speaks.

As Scott, Reeves is equally good, but the role isn't as fully articulated. We're never plugged into him the way we are to Mike, and so he seems somewhat on the edge of our feelings. Richert's Bob, though, commands full attention. His role is the most florid, the most difficult and the most thrilling. A big man with a booming voice, he's a seedy aristocrat, a fallen man with enough wit not to take his fall seriously. But when Scott spurns him, a lethal blow is struck and Richert makes us feel it. He's sublime.

The whole movie is. It's wobblier, perhaps, than "Drugstore Cowboy," and less incisive than "Mala Noches," but it has its own shaggy grace. Van Sant's sensibility is wholly original, wholly fresh. "My Own Private Idaho" adds a new ingredient: a kind of boho sweetness. I loved it.

"My Own Private Idaho" is rated R for sexuality and language.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help