on July 19, 2003
Most people seem shocked when I tell them that "My Own Private Idaho" is one of my favorite movies ever, though I don't see why. One of Gus Van Sant's lower budget films, this melancholic adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" to the American West (chiefly Portland, Oregon and all around the western states) follows the adventures of a road-tripping prodigal son of wealthy and powerful politician (played to perfection by a reflective Keanu Reeves)and his best friend, a narcoleptic prostitute (a visionary performance by the late River Phoenix).
"My Own Private Idaho" is a marvel: dreamlike, eerie, haunting, constantly engaging, often surreal. There are a handful of films I have seen that completely transport me out of the feeling I'm seeing a film: this is one of them. The film's first haunting image of River Phoenix, alone, on a desolate stretch of Western highway, taken by his sickness, has to be seen to be believed; the eerie "Riding the Prairie" is a perfect complement to this movie about two strangers in a very strange land, journeying among the hustlers, hookers, con-men, schemers and bon vivants in the modern American West.
The plot is loose and rangy, and like its subjects, Van Sant uses it as needed to move the story along: Phoenix's character wants a reconciliation with his estranged mother, and certainly peace with himself. Keanu, sensing debauchery and fun, tags along, and the movie rambles about with them, taking note of their adventures and their pursuers (particularly delightful and outre is their awkward and funny tryst with an older woman, spoiled by Phoenix's narcolepsy, and a splendidly funny turn by Udo Kier as Hans, an unbearably kinky German john who simply will not be left behind).
For all its strangeness, there is a rich, empathetic core at the heart of this movie. Interviews with the film's young, hip, pierced and tattooed street prostitutes are funny, free-form, almost documentary in style, and often surprisingly moving, but the film is not hackneyed or saccharine; Van Sant has too much respect for his characters to ever stray into preachiness or movie-of-the-week ("this week: battling child prositution!" tone is not to be found here) territory.
The cinematography of "My Own Private Idaho" is lush and alluring, and the story and travels of its young and naive (albeit experienced) protagonists are fresh and intriguing enough for Van Sant to have neglected the tie-in with Shakespeare. That said, the allusion to Keanu as a treacherous Prince Hal, ready to sell out his friends to take up his destiny, doesn't harm the movie, and even accentuates its tragic tone---not to mention that indie-director William Richert is amusing as a latter-day Falstaff.
"My Own Private Idaho" is certainly not for everyone, and to many will seem contrived and inaccessible. But for the discriminating viewer who welcomes the opportunity to have River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves serve as tour guides into a strange and unsettling landscape, it will very likely prove unforgettable.
on January 19, 2004
When *My Own Private Idaho* hit the rental shelves of the local movie theater way back in the early 90's, its reputation spread immediately among the young and restless of my small, conservative home-town. The consensus was of near-unanimous disgust, with common descriptions including "sick," "depraved," and that age-old chestnut "Confusing" with a capital "C." And yet my opinion was, typically, not that of the consensus. My artist's spirit identified with the wanderlust-yearning and puckish wonder inhabited in the vagabond Scott and Mike - a somewhat-sheltered mind's naïve lust for that opposite of its own experience. Although I certainly found myself shocked by the depiction of homosexual prostitution, the romantic tone and Shakespearan prose-play helped to penetrate (so to speak) this gutterpunk-fantasy firmly into the deepest reaches of my life-thirsty cerebrum; if anything, I found the homophobic snarls of my teenage compatriots in regards to this film more disturbing - on an immediate, reactionary level - than any fantastical degradation the film itself presented.
Immersed in that heady sensation of nostalgia and curiosity, I looked forward to a mature re-viewing of this art house masterpiece: of filtering Van Zant's intentions through an adult lens. Accordingly, I found that which impressed me most as a child seemed less important to my current mindset, and vice versa - no longer was I wholly enraptured by the wide-shots of empty highways and the plethora of bizarre chance encounters (elements so common to life on the road): having Kerouac'ed my way across the world, I must admit to preferring my own experiences to *Idaho's* hodge-podge questing. Consequently, the depiction of street-life squalor, early 90's-era Portland style, resonated far deeper this time around: a bell-toll for the doomed.
River Phoenix shines in perhaps his defining role as Mike, a homeless narcoleptic endlessly conking out in moments of stress, shivering and twitching in ecstatic remembrance of mommy dearest and sharecropper-esque glory (decrepit farmhouses and dust-bowl potato-sprawl): several scenes, including his breakdown at the fire and romper-stomp at the funeral, shine with a quicksilver talent so brilliant that it easily transcends the drug-addled ghost Phoenix was already beginning to become. As for Keanu Reeves... well, I've always been of the opinion that he is the most underrated of H-wood's golden A-list, a man with deep presence and charisma, hampered by a stoic demeanor and tonal limitations. I must admit I found it rather disconcerting to see Neo preening on the cover of a porno-rag: still, Reeve's subtle reactions to Fat Bob and Mike's outspoken coat-tail riding; his recitation of Shakespeare, Henry V style, with a cowboy twang thrown in at the pivotal tension-trigger; and finally his ascension from rebellious naïf to "master of the universe"-Reeves gives an outstanding performance, among his very best (though this may come across as an oxymoron to some - so be it).
Moreover, the very tools that romanticize *Idaho's* ne'er-do-well protagonists -- Celtic rhythms, lurid colors, Ye Olde English capering - also flip-side emphasize the constant-trauma and grimy exploitation of the LCD rent-boy's raw existence, with suffering only alleviated via spurts of snorting, drinking, mischief and, perchance, a miraculous stranger's unexpected generosity. As Fat Bob and Mike's illusions of wealth-an eternal party utterly devoid of street-life cost-unravel, the subsequent denouement is immeasurably augmented by the early 'warmth' of the film, and the steady chill that seeps through the cracks, numbing body and mind, overwhelm its progression until abrupt collapse upon the desolate highway of the ending.
A few noteworthy scenes: When Fat Bob coldly warns Mike about "Living on yer [arse]," the horrific undercurrent ramifications cut the usual tongue-wag riffing like a knife. Likewise, near the movie's conclusion, when Mike slumps into his ump-teenth narcoleptic fit on a filthy concrete street, the camera pans to Scott newly-settled in his seat of mobile power, enforcing the inevitable destiny of these lost souls, harlots high and low: one elevated to the highest reaches of society, the other forever abandoned to the cold stone and cold hands of the Outskirts.
*My Own Private Idaho:* a paean for the lost and lonely, the gutterpunk romantic in us all. Five stars.
on February 12, 2007
I know this review gets a little self-indulgent, but if you'll allow me to get autobiographical for just a second, you'll see why I do.
When River Phoenix breathed his last in front of Johnny Depp's Viper Room on Halloween morning in 1993, I think I was just the right age to feel a certain frisson in his passing that wouldn't have been there a year or two either way. My friend and I came home from a snowy night among trick or treaters to graphic news accounts of Phoenix's passing, and for reasons that made perfect sense to us then, we went out and got this movie on video. Ultimately we ended up buying it and watching it shall we say A LOT till about the end of the year, when new misfortunes came along, eventually in the next spring taking the form of Kurt Cobain's suicide, which trumped all previous newsworthy events in our young lives.
Well, recently I got My Own Private Idaho on DVD, motivated more about nostalgia for ninth-grade and a weirdly River Phoenix obsessed fall than out of remaining affection for the movie itself, but you know, after watching it from my perspective of today, this is a lot better film than for all my sentimentality I'd remembered it being. From its re-telling of Shakespeare with a modern boldness unseen by anything else until Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo+Juliet a few years later, to its in-your-face trip into the living hell of junky male prostitutes living homeless in circa 1990 Portland and Seattle, Gus Van Sant's quirky film seems even more an achievement now than it ever did back in the day. In viewing My Own Private Idaho, you get to hear tales of life on the streets as told by real-life hustlers, and you get to see a pre-A-list Keanu Reeves act in his own unique and inimitable style. But above all, to be honest, the ghost of River Phoenix still haunts this movie, and always will. To view it from an all-knowing hindsight and understand that according to so many THIS was the project that introduced the one-time clean living son of hippies to the quick thrill of hard drugs...that hasn't ceased to deliver a punch, even in a more jaded decade such as this one.
If you haven't seen My Own Private Idaho, see it; it's destined to be a classic one day. If it's been a while, see it again. It holds up well and it should tell you something about how much you've changed with time.
Thanks for reading!
on August 20, 1999
Rarely have I been fortunate enough to stumble upon a movie like My Own Private Idaho. From the opening scene of River Phoenix's character Mike Waters standing on the road (that seems to stretch on forever) to his last words back on the same road at the films close. ("I've been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never..end. It probably goes all around the world.") I've watched this movie over and over and I still find it to be the most beautiful, bittersweet, funny, brave and thought-provoking film I've ever seen. The deinitive indie film of the 90's. The issues raised are so close to my own humble heart that certain scenes, (notabley the camp fire scene, Bob's death and funeral, and the closing scene) never fail to reduce me to a blithering mess of empathy, hope, sadness and happiness. A powerful cinematic experience indeed. Brillient direction, fascinating and daring subject matter and, most watch-worthy of all, the best performance ever captured on screen by anyone anywhere. River Phoenix's performance as Mike Waters is simultainiously painfully real, heartwrenchingly sad and achingly beautiful. Much like the actor himself. Hollywoods greatest loss. River, I love you, miss you, thank you and will NEVER forget you.
on February 17, 2001
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO is an incredible film that really has it all: two charismatic stars, a unique mix of comedy and tragedy, some beautiful imagery, fantastic dialogue, a story that manages to move along at a pretty good clip, and a terrific ending that is open to interpretation. What else could you want?
At the core of the movie is the relationship between Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves), who are working as street hustlers in the Northwest. Mike is a lonely character, emotionally vulnerable as a result of his dysfunctional upbringing and often physically vulnerable as a result of his narcolepsy. He is a lost soul, a drifter desperate for love. Scott, on the other hand, is calculating, merely toying with street life until he inherits the life laid out for him by his father's wealth and power. Still, Scott does seem to have a fair amount of genuine affection and concern for Mike, often taking care of him during his narcoleptic attacks and going along with him as he hits the road in search of his mother. The heart of this movie is the contrast between these two and the bond between them, despite their obviously deep divisions.
River Phoenix turns in my favorite performance of his tragically brief career, and really carries the movie while Keanu Reeves, although his character is nearly as interesting as River's, more than holds his own as well. What keeps this from being a five star movie is Gus Van Sant's incorporation of Shakespeare into the script. It's a cheap gimmick that adds very little to the movie and really only serves to label the movie as a knock-off. I think most of the people who saw this movie would have seen the HENRY IV parallels in Scott's story without having the ACTUAL dialogue dropped on our heads. Still, it's ultimately a minor complaint and absolutely no reason to stay away from the film. River Phoenix's performance alone makes this one a must see.
on June 16, 2004
Being fairly new to the world of 'art-house' movies, i first found this a little confusing, and i was concerned that this strange approach would hinder the emotional impact of the film, rendering it yet another overly stylish, powerless and incomprehensible piece of modern film-art. I had also heard that it was extremely shocking and controversial. However, i began to understand Gus Van Sant's language, and it soon seemed completely natural. The claims regarding its explicit sexual nature have been, fankly, grossly exaggerated and probably the result of mild homophobia. The camp fire scene is the most memorable, with River Phoenix's perfomance as Mike, subtle and shining as usual, bringing to mind the very similar camp-fire scene in "Stand by me". Having only seen Keanu Reeves appear in such films as 'Speed' and 'the Matrix', in which he hardly demonstrates any power or skill as an actor, it came as somewhat of a pleasant surprise to see his humorous and striking portrayal of Scott. A sensitive choice of music contributed to the mood, both in the comic, nostalgic steel-string guitar to the gentle folk song that plays as Mike vows through tears to find his mother (by the way, does anybody know what that song is or how to find out?). I was slightly disappointed and depressed by the ending, which is extremely inconclusive, but i suppose movies don't always need a conclusive ending to make them good. Overall a visually stylish, emotionally powerful movie, with some fantastic acting by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
on April 10, 2004
I did not know exactly to expect when watching this movie but I am a big fan of River Phoenix so I decided to give it a shot. I watched about the first third or so of it and found myself thinking I can't believe I rented this, with the exception of a few scenes that I thought were pretty funny, but when the campfire scene happened I became more involved with the film. I started to see Mike more as a person searching for love and his mother instead of just a male prostitute that fell asleep a lot. I thought River's acting was brilliant. Everything I have seen him in so far is so believable to me. For example, when he sees Scott and his new girlfriend kissing at the dinner table he blows smoke at them, out of obvious jealousy, and he can't sleep when he hears them making love in the next room. I think he was excellent in picking up people's mannerisms and the little things that people do. I ended up being so mad at Scott in the end and was saddened in how it seemed that Mike would live that life until his death. The role of Mike was played perfectly in that it seemed that he didn't even like being a prostitute, evident by his fits of sleep during most of those situations, but he was just trying to get by and find love. The believable acting, mostly by River, and the sadness and emotional vulnerability of the second 2 thirds or so of the film more than make up for the beginning. I hope to look deeper into people's lives and less likely to judge others, something that I must admit needing a little more help in. It really saddens me that there are people right now as I'm typing this review living lives similar to this one feeling like the "road never ends" for them. God bless them and everyone else.
on August 5, 2014
Really amazing! River Phoenix is just fantastic, and Van Sant really knows his stuff. I love the cameos made by actual hustlers from the streets of Portland, OR. It really rings true.
My Own Private Idaho was the result of three projects coming together. The first was a modern adaptation of Henry IV called Howling At The Moon, which was about street kids in Portland and was told entirely in William Shakespearean verse. The second was called In A Blue Funk, and was about two Spanish cousins, living on the streets of Las Vegas, who decide to go to Spain after seeing their last name on a Spanish map and wanting to find out about themselves and their family. The third was actually titled My Own Private Idaho and was about an early version of the Mike character as a hustler who gets picked up by a German auto parts salesman and "kept" at his house. Gus Van Sant had trouble finishing the scripts, so he merged them together into the finished form.
It is a must own!
There is a simple beauty about `My Own Private Idaho' that doesn't instantly catch the eye. In fact, it took me a few viewings before I settled down on it. The film is carried quite effectively by a very strong performance given by River Phoenix (such a sorely missed talent), but there is a delicacy to the entirety of the film that I think adds more weight than a mere performance could.
It has flaws, but they are forgivable.
The film tells the story of two friends, Mike and Scott, who bond over their respective struggles. Scott is a child of wealth who forsakes his father's fortunes for the life of a street dweller; a mere act of rebellion he intends on exchanging for his inheritance at a later date. Mike is not so calculated. Mike is eternally lost in the struggle to find himself. He has a shady recollection of his past. He suffers from narcolepsy that springs itself on him when his memory is jogged and stress enters the equation. He is desperate to find his mother, more or less looking for some sort of closure. He lacks love in his life and yet he is aching to express his true feelings for Scott. Mike and Scott both sell themselves for money, but they each have a different idea of what that means for them and their future.
Like I said, the film is not perfect. I have a few issues with the way the script was constructed (parts of the films first section seem overdone and parts of the final section seem rushed) and I felt that the Shakespearian dialog was, at times, awkward. I feel that Keanu Reeves is probably the worst actor in the history of cinema to become `famous' and his performance here (while possibly his finest ever) can be a distraction, especially since his take on the character seems uneven. While I understand that there are aspects of his personality that are not revealed in the outset of the film, Reeves should have understood how to layer the character so that the revelations wouldn't seem so off-putting. That said, the film has a slew of redeemable factors that make up for the issues I have. Gus Van Sant is one of those directors who has a vision. At times I don't think it translates as well as he wants it to (`Good Will Hunting', `Psycho') but then there are times when his vision is beautifully rendered (`Elephant', `To Die For'). Despite its flaws, Van Sant really creates something cohesive with `My Own Private Idaho'. It is a nice mix of the dark comedic tones he would later perfect with `To Die For' with the dramatic tensions he would later water down in `Good Will Hunting'. While I found it a tad clunky in scenes, overall his tone is nicely rendered. The imagery is staggering. Van Sant understood how to immortalize his mood with the camera, whether it be studying the sweat on Phoenix's face or glazing the Roman countryside.
And then there is River Phoenix.
The delicate and haunting performance that Phoenix manages to deliver has, by many, been labeled one of the best in the history of cinema. After many viewings I must agree. There are no real dramatics used (unless you count the pits of narcoleptic seizers) to grab you. Instead, Phoenix burns from within, creating a quiet and harrowing character in Mike. There is a moment in the film, at a campfire, where Mike reveals his true feelings for Scott. The way that Phoenix handles the dialog (and the sheer fact that he wrote the scene himself) shows how much he understood this character. That understanding translates well to the audience, for they feel the pain in his soul. It is a soft performance, but it speaks volumes.
I also wanted to mention that James Russo's brief scene as Richard, Mike's brother (?) was outstanding.
In the end I recommend this film without hesitation. Could it have been cleaned up a bit? Sure, but beneath my reservations lies a beautifully sincere film that deserves your attention.
on September 1, 2015
It's sad that theirs young people out there that goes through this everyday. This is a very example of this movie, River Phoenix was excellent playing his part. The other actors were excellent also a great movie to reminding us to be better to those less fortunate.