River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves star in director Gus Van Sant’s haunting tale of two young street hustlers: Mike Waters, a sensitive narcoleptic who dreams of the mother who abandoned him, and Scott Favor, wayward son of the mayor of Portland and the object of Mike’s desire. Navigating a volatile world of junkies, thieves, and johns, Mike takes Scott on a quest from the grungy streets to the open highways of the Pacific Northwest, in search of an elusive place called "home." Groundbreaking and visually dazzling, My Own Private Idaho
is a stirring look at unrequited love and life at society’s margins.
Mapping the spaces between fortune and degeneracy, Shakespeare and street cant, Europe and the Pacific Northwest, and gay and straight, My Own Private Idaho
is the 1991 masterpiece by director Gus Van Sant. River Phoenix gave the most generous and memory-searing performance of his tragically shortened career as Mike Waters, a narcoleptic street hustler in search of his mother. His best friend, Scott, played by Keanu Reeves, is a son of privilege who fosters plans of rejoining the moneyed world of his father after gallivanting with assorted urchins and ne'er-do-wells. The beautifully symmetrical story that emerges between the two is one of friendship, yearning for lost time, and sexual identity conveyed with a poet's eye for landscape. The camera lingers on abandoned houses in golden fields and time-lapse clouds, providing what T.S. Eliot called "the objective correlative"--external representations of interior emotional states. We're treated to striking iconic sequences like a barn falling from the sky and still-life scenes of carnal entanglement. The supporting cast is a rogues' gallery that includes Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Udo Kier, director William Richert, and a variety of "nonactors" pulled literally off the street to provide documentary veracity to a film that gleefully careens into riffs on Henry IV
. It's beautiful.
What's also beautiful is the Criterion Collection's treatment of the film's DVD debut. The director-approved transfer successfully conveys the warmth of the film's palette of oranges and browns, and preserves the whimsical atmospherics of the yodeling country music soundtrack. Many members of the original crew contribute their fond memories to the documentary features, which include a conversation between Phoenix's sister Rain and producer Laurie Parker. There are also two lengthy audio-only conversations--one between Van Sant and Velvet Goldmine director Todd Haynes, and another between author J.T. Leroy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette about their experiences on the street. The deleted scenes mostly suggest alternate endings that Van Sant wisely left on the cutting room floor. A superb example of a beloved film on DVD. --Ryan Boudinot
Stills from My Own Private Idaho (click for larger image)
Keanu and River
Gus Van Sant