Review Written by: Chris Burns
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Based on the play by: William Shakespeare
Produced by: Laurie Parker
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Udo Kier, Flea, Tom Troupe
Studio: Fine Line Features
American cinema was in fast decline throughout the '80s and to be frank, it was not until the independent scene arrived that good things started happening for the industry. By the mid-80s the independent scene had begun to emerge from its obscure and relatively unknown roots. Directors placed in the "indie" category had unwittingly given birth to the American new-wave, whereby avant-garde cinema had slyly emerged via the underground film scene. This was paved by art directors, such as Gus Van Sant, who is often mistaken as the pioneer of a non-existent sub-genre "Queer Cinema." Such a vague term is regularly misused and does not fit the body of Van Sant's works.
Opening with the lonely, untouched Idaho road and emphasising the wide, desolate landscape which swarms Mike, the central protagonist to who the viewer has unwittingly been introduced to. Nothing is masked in a landscape of vast, picturesque beauty. It is in these opening moments that Van Sant instantly captures the notions, motifs, styles and themes of his magnum opus. By using time-lapse photography and exemplified close-ups for key shots Mike's narcoleptic, private Idaho state-of-mind conveys a detached and strained existence. Yet the ambiance could not be more opposed to Mike's looming, inner-torment. His heartbroken, alienated and unrequited soul echoes that of a character built from Shakespearian tragedy. Ironically, (as with many of the story's aspects) this bitter case of –what is essentially- sexual identity is told through a metaphorical, estranged journey, incorporating many pathological and writing elements of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 & 2
. Then the streets of Portland are turned into something fuelled by expressionistic, contemporary glances of wry, frisky lyricism.
In many respects, My Own Private Idaho
is often –rightfully referred to- as a road movie, an observation which is preferably suited for a voyage of poetic exploration and self-fulfilment. It is a tale of repressed desires, held back by the confusion of a living life whereby selling one's body (to men and women) is the only way to survive. Mike is a distant wanderer of the street, forever destined to seek life on the road, as his narcoleptic state-of-mind is an unwanted escape route from his foreseen fate of falling apart from the one he so loves. You see, this is a tale following characters who are suffering from identity crisis, due to the way they have chosen/been forced to make a living.
Mike's travelling partner, Scott is more than just a friend and is in fact the man Mike loves so dearly. During that infamous, often mentioned campfire scene Mike expresses his devotion for Scott by uttering those crucial words, "I love you and you don't pay me." Regrettably, Scott is a selfish man, wallowing in his idealistic dreams of rebellion, whilst still preserving the knowledge that he can return to his roots, inherit a fortune at any time he likes. Unlike his companion, Scott has a family, yet shows no appreciation for such "needless things", casting them off for carrying the traits he indulges himself in so dearly. Mike's quest for family and home is stimulated by his repressed desire to receive the love he has always deserved, but never received, and yet it is a mere excuse for Scott to continue his self-righteous journey into oblivion.
These so-called low-lives, who have no home or money might be cast-off as hoodlums by many, but Van Sant respects such people, respectfully deciding not to dismiss them. Instead he opts for obtaining an understanding of such people's moral outlook, individual perspective on life and most important of all, the reasoning behind why they subside in a state which is so against the so-called norm. As a thoughtful director, Van Sant examines a situation by not dismissing it as a singular, deluded case of rebellion. By no means is his film a gesture of remorse, but a motion of respectful gratitude. Cultural acceptance requires broad understanding; something Van Sant has an incredible talent for capturing.
River Phoenix's famed performance is tough to first grasp, but ranks among the greatest of all-time. It was the true showcase of his long-gone and often reminisced career, sustained by the paradoxically referential characters he portrayed. Phoenix's image of unrequited love is both the cynic's and romantic's most desperate vision. For those who accuse Keanu Reeves of being a wooden actor, observe his chemistry with Phoenix and then tell me he is unable to prove even the slightest hint of aptitude. Both performances are achingly sensitive and longingly receptive, two emotional elements emphasised by the sensually reprehensive screenplay.
Some of us get it easy in life, whilst others subconsciously take the long way round. All is not fair in love and war, but My Own Private Idaho
offers comfort in the notion of narcoleptic escapism, shimmering street life and those dreamy, forgotten landscapes. This is a sweeping, majestic kind of withdrawn beauty, which clutches the viewer's soul and breaks it into tiny particles of tender humanity. Van Sant proves his auteur status, not only as a master craftsman of direction, but as a storyteller for those unexpected, everyday, tragedy-stricken individuals. A story's route should speak globally; the life-affirming Idaho road achieves such and continues to obtain much, much more. Rarely can art obtain a more emotive and lingering sensation than that of this.
Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's Shakespeare adaptation, My Own Private Idaho.