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‘My Own Private Idaho’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 18, 1991

"My Own Private Idaho," the most ambitious mainstream film of the year, zeros in on your subconscious. It gets you below the emotional belt in a searing, delicate way. No movie this year approaches such magnificent imagery, such delectable poetry. Even though it falters toward the end, it soars above the fray.

Director Gus Van Sant, who scored both with "Mala Noche" and "Drugstore Cowboy," gets his artistic hat trick. This exquisite, cinematic poem is about the eternal search to belong somewhere, and the lonely landscape of the soul. It draws from a limitless palette of enigma, feelings and images. It replays in the mind as a painting -- a complete story, yet also frozen in time. It spins and respins itself with the ringing satisfaction of wind chimes. The tones sing to all the senses. Those with ears to hear will love this music.

River Phoenix, a chronic narcoleptic, lives on the streets of Portland, Ore., with a bevy of fellow hustlers (including Keanu Reeves), street youth and lowlifes. His clients range from a Capote-like compulsive who likes his bathtubs well scrubbed to a rich dame who likes her boys all at once. He has one foot on the streets, the other eternally planted in his dream world. He drifts into his own, private oblivion at any moment -- usually when someone reminds him of his long-lost mother. In his REM reveries, he finds himself on a beautiful road to nowhere. Flickery, home-movie images of his mother come to him.

Phoenix is also secretly in love with best friend Reeves, the handsome son of the mayor who has forsaken the upper crust for the underground. He and Phoenix hang with a ragged street family in a condemned building. In a deliberate respinning of Orson Welles's Shakespearean "Chimes at Midnight," they converse in bardspeak. Reeves, as the updated Prince Hal, awaits his royal mantle and drinks away his youth with the ragged cohorts. Street guru William Richert, the stout Falstaff figure, returns from an absence, hoping to renew his friendship with Reeves. He will meet only treachery.

There are other developments too numerous to explore. With Reeves in tow, Phoenix goes in search of his mother. His travels include runs-ins with older brother James Russo and boy-hungry Eurotrash artiste Udo Kier. They also include a trip to Rome where, to Phoenix's horror, Reeves falls for a local girl. Upon returning to America, Phoenix returns to his circular, inward state. Reeves's Machiavellian intentions become apparent.

The movie heads nowhere happy -- slowly. Despite its formlessness, "Idaho" does have a narrative momentum in the beginning. It slows. "Idaho" eventually seems to stall. Where has this film gone? How has it evolved? Perhaps, in the movie's own terms, these are the wrong questions. "Idaho" begins to feel more like a Sant-imonious pastiche than a movie. Yet never once do its stunning, pristine qualities flag.

Phoenix's sleepy naivete and unconscious princeliness in the middle of danger and seaminess give the movie a powerful, emotional center. It's a haunting, deeply affecting performance. "This road," he says of the route that he returns to with surrealistic repetition, "it probably goes around the world."

He is speaking as much about the movie as himself. One of the movie's locales is his own mind. In Phoenix -- and in the movie around him -- Van Sant has achieved a perfect synthesis.

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