The best thing about My Own Private Idaho is the way it so sure-handedly captures the lifestyle of the drifter. Its main characters depending on the kindness of strangers to make ends meet, the film might have, in different hands, been a depressing, slice-of-life-styled character study with few likable characteristics besides its acting. But because it is a film directed by Gus Van Sant, whose body of work has frequently crawled under the guise of the avant-garde, My Own Private Idaho is a mercurial-but-touching drama far more affecting than a film as experimental as it has any right to be.
The depicted drifters are hustlers, wandering the streets day and night with determination to turn a couple of tricks for quick money. One is Mike (River Phoenix), a gay man whose existence is incessantly tormented by a relentless search for his long-lost mother and severe narcolepsy. The other is Scott (Keanu Reeves), a child of wealth who takes to the streets for the sole purpose of rebellion. Both pimp themselves out to whoever calls, most being men, though Scott obsessively assures us that he’s straight, only willing to please male callers if money awaits him.
We can see that Mike is in love with Scott, and maybe Scott would admit to loving him too if he weren’t so convinced that working as a prostitute is only a temporary vocation. He’ll inherit his father’s money when he’s twenty-one, he explains. But these young men are much too caught up in self-discovery to really mean anything they say or do. My Own Private Idaho is a journey, us acting as voyeurs as they travel from customer to customer, as they travel around the Washington/Oregon area, and even to Italy in hopes of finding Mike’s mother, whom he believes will mystically be awaiting him somewhere random with open arms.
Seeing the way its story is as arbitrary as its characters are, I cannot stand by the conviction that My Own Private Idaho is much more than a better-than-average art-house flick. But that’s still a significant achievement, considering how much it haunts us on a humanistic level in light of the way so much of its aesthetic is artier than anything Godard’s ‘60s could have dreamed of. Van Sant’s writing and direction is enthusiastically off-kilter, frivolously (if somewhat illogically) funny in some places and heavy in others, adeptly portraying the lives of these characters as being both humorously without aspiration and troublingly tragic.
Phoenix and Reeves are similarly proficient, masterfully portraying potentially unplayable (in terms of realism, that is) characters with enough demureness to keep their ingenuity intact, despite them working in one of the utmost innocence-destroying fields of all. Phoenix, quiet and sensitive, prodigiously captures Mike’s demons, no matter how chucklesome, or desperate, they might seen. Reeves brings an ironic, comic edge to his performance, Scott’s laments ridiculously dim in their wit but delivered by Reeves with total seriousness.
So while My Own Private Idaho is decidedly imperfect, its story told with too much experimental looseness to profoundly deter our emotions, we cannot help but be taken by Van Sant’s risky approach, by the subtly superb performances from Phoenix and Reeves. Who knew a tale about street hustlers could be such a trip? B+