Phoenix, in interviews, was clearly thrilled when writer/director Gus Van Sant credited him with having written this scene in Van Sant's wonderful 1991 movie My Own Private Idaho. He should have been. Emotionally, it's a doozy, and it serves as the point at which these two fractured lives separate into their own trajectories. Mike's takes him back again and again to the same dogged search for love and the same stretch of empty highway. Scott's takes him to Italy, where he falls in love with the beautiful Carmella (Chiara Caselli) and, ultimately, to an encounter in Portland with his street mentor Bob (William Richert). Here the movie takes an unexpected Shakespearean turn as Van Sant lifts fragments from Henry IV, casting Scott as Prince Hal to Bob's Falstaff, even as Mike's story continues on in the real world. We know from Shakespeare that Scott will turn his back on his old friends and assume the throne in the end. If Mike is heartbroken it's because life in the real world is hard; that's why we have private ones.
There is no very good reason that My Own Private Idaho should succeed: It's unfocussed and wildly improbable, its narrative is willfully ungainly, and, in its second half, much of the dialogue is written in a kind of impromptu, ersatz Shakespeare. (Time, says Scott at one point, is "a fair hustler in black leather"; one assumes that neither Phoenix nor Reeves had a hand in this.) Yet, however improbably, the end result hangs together seamlessly as a portrait of lives led half on the streets and half in fantasy, and the film emerges as a high-water mark in '90s independent film.
I credit Van Sant. Most directors, I imagine, would balk at a concept that requires a story of male prostitution to transform suddenly into Elizabethan theater halfway through, or that transports its homeless protagonists to Rome on a narrative whim. (Passports?) But Van Sant remains both earnest and true to his vision, and his audaciousness carries the film. (Phoenix, in his best performance, helps.) In the end, My Own Private Idaho is a marvelous balancing act: it feels as grungy and lived-in as Mike's filthy clothes and as transcendent as poetry at the same time. In one scene we join Mike toward the end of a blowjob he's receiving from a john; when he comes the image of an entire house being dropped onto a desolate highway fills the screen. It's dirty and beautiful, and, as a comment on Mike's yearning for a home he never had, it's impossible to beat.
In My Own Private Idaho there's a lot more hip, oddly hopeful poetry where that came from. This milestone independent film is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection (including a mountian of goodies: a two-hour interview with Van Sant (audio only), new making-of retrospective, interviews galore, deleted scenes, and an impressive booklet with essays and printed interviews). Welcome back.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 29th September 1991
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Production compaines: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 44 Rotten: 10
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Laurie Parker
Screenwriter: Gus Van Sant
Starring: River Phoenix as Mike Waters, Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor, James Russo as Richard Waters, William Richert as Bob Pigeon, Rodney Harvey as Gary, Chiara Caselli as Carmella, Grace Zabriskie as Mother, Tom Troupe as Jack Favor, Michael Parker as Digger, Jessie Thomas as Denise, Michael Peter Balzary as Budd, Udo Kier as Hans, Sally Curtice as Jane Lightwork