Mike Waters (River Phoenix) is a narcoleptic street hustler who lives in the bus terminal, streets, and abandoned buildings of Portland, Oregon, and who dreams of one day finding his mother. Fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) takes care of Mike - he hauls the other man to safety when a sudden sleeping spell comes upon him, usually triggered by stress or memories of home - and although he too lives in the streets and makes a living accommodating the sexual whims of paying customers, he's the scion of a wealthy and powerful Portland family with every reason to believe that that wealth and power will one day be his own. Mike's in love with Scott; he says as much one night when Scott is explaining that love is something customers pay you to provide. "I love you and you don't pay me," Mike counters. In this lowlife milieu, such a bare declaration amounts to an act of grace. But Scott lets it pass and the moment slides by.
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.
Continue reading: My Own Private Idaho Review