Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is a jagged, episodic film that’s all of a piece by sheer force of will, existing as a collection of conceits, gambits, and gimmicks that are bundled together by a through line of longing. It’s Van Sant’s freest film, offering the illusion of having arisen fully formed from the ether of its maker’s consciousness. Viewers unacquainted with the filmmaker’s most personal work, or with his various influences, which include the writings of William S. Burroughs and the cinema of Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and Stan Brakahage, may have a fair question though: What the hell is My Own Private Idaho?
Most simply, the film is, along with Natural Born Killers, one of American cinema’s most successful attempts at informing a conventional narrative with stream of consciousness. Van Sant immediately puts one on the wavelength of his protagonist, Mike (River Phoenix), in the opening sequence, where the twentysomething street hustling narcoleptic is seen standing in the middle of a highway running through a western setting that’s said to be somewhere in Idaho. In voiceover, Mike offers barely audible observations that are more revealing for the character’s delivery than for their content. Mike claims to have seen this road before, equating it to a familiar face (an association exemplified by Van Sant’s use of an iris), but we respond to Phoenix’s willingness to close the monologue in on itself, drifting into his own orbit, (barely) offering his words up to the audience as a sort of verbal ouroboros that’s reflective of his rootlessness and doubled by the film’s own circular, Sisyphean narrative.
Van Sant complements Mike’s genuflecting with sharply edited images of ironic beauty and disruption. The landscapes include gorgeous time-lapsed skylines and are framed with an element of sunny symmetry that brackets them in quotation marks, in a manner reminiscent of the similar tactics employed by John Waters, Alex Cox, and even Tim Burton in their films. We see a child in a woman’s lap, embodying a mythical idea of safety that literalizes the title as a desire for refuge. We see fish swimming upstream to mate, in a shot that’s revealed to be both cheeky and poignant when it’s followed by a sudden close-up of Mike’s face as he’s being blown by a fat, middle-aged male john in Portland.
In this sequence, there’s also a camera placement—more or less from the point of view of the room’s floor—that erotically establishes the tactile weight of Mike’s legs as they push against the john’s head. Interspersed with this commercialized sex is an image of a barn crashing from the sky to the ground, which could symbolize both Mike’s ejaculation and his sublimated feelings of shaming a home and a mother he never knew with his turn to whoredom.
Collectively, the first 10 minutes of this film establish Mike’s loneliness and self-loathing as well as the fact that anything aesthetically goes, as this is a story of a highly subjective realm that’s filtered through an intellectualized hall of mirrors that only appears to be instinctual by design. In this opening, with this mixture of stylized yet explicable symbolism, Van Sant grants himself the freedom to fashion a figurative splatter painting without losing his audience or breaking any sort of “rules” of consistency. The loose quotations from Henry IV, for instance, detailing the betrayal of Bob (William Richert), a Falstaffian father figure to Mike’s best friend and unrequited love object, Scott (Keanu Reeves), parallel and comment on Mike’s search for his mother, on his general feelings of having been “cast out” by proper society, which will always embrace the well-moneyed, properly born Scott. Bob, a twisted dreamer, suggests the parent that Mike thinks he deserves, rather than the one he might desire.
Van Sant frequently underlines and emphasizes Mike’s essential dilemma: his yearning for unqualified acceptance within a lifestyle qualified by money, whether obtained by thieving or prostituting. (A notion encapsulated succinctly by a sequence that envisions Mike, Scott, and others as the talking covers of gay porno magazines.) Every character, no matter how minor or affluent, with the exception of the deliberately, cunningly vague Scott (who personifies elusiveness), is shown to share Mike’s general estrangement from “mainstream” society, though no one appears to even know quite what that is to begin with. Tellingly, Scott, the one character with the luxury of touring the dregs and the slums with the knowledge that he can leave at any time, is also the one to know that such a fantasy of “belonging” to something is mostly just that.
The filmmaker is endlessly introducing formal conceptions of alienation, most memorably depicting the for-hire sex that Mike and Scott have with johns as a series of posed, somewhat animate stills that reduce the act to a catalogue of mechanical gestures that are nevertheless not without a certain degree of ambiguous warmth and humor. Van Sant’s too much of an artist to stage a conventionally moralist polemic. Resonantly, when Scott’s eventually said to fall in love, the sex he has with the Italian woman he eventually marries (Chiara Caselli) is rendered in the same still poses as the professional fucking he does with Mike and the crazy, lonely johns. Because Scott’s ascension to the high life is a sort of disconcertingly casual tragedy, an abbreviation of his search for who he really is.
My Own Private Idaho is no less conceptual than most of the Van Sant films to follow it, with the exception of the director’s uncharacteristically anonymous Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. But this film lives and breathes in a manner that’s rare in the director’s filmography, exuding a feeling of ever-shifting elusiveness, of Van Sant catching something up in his nets that he doesn’t entirely understand, but is too wise to discard. Quite a bit of that feeling comes from Phoenix, who offers an eccentric, multifaceted portrait of heartbreak that’s also acutely funny in a manner that would establish precedent for the work of his brother, Joaquin Phoenix. Mike’s a raw emotional nerve who’s a little slow on the minute-by-minute uptake, due in part to his narcolepsy (which Van Sant also uses as justification for the film’s structure, literalizing its anywhere/anytime sense of narrative randomness), and his naïveté and decency.
That last quality bubbles up in the film’s greatest and most legendary scene, when Mike tries to tell Scott by a campfire that he loves him without telling him that he loves him. Phoenix’s naked, halting rhythms are a thing of ineffable beauty, and Reeves, an intuitive, underrated actor, fulfills the demanding task of subtly taking the measure of his co-star as the latter forges a trail toward behavioral profundity. At times, it seems as if Van Sant and Reeves are forming a protective fence around Phoenix, and it’s this impression that gives this deeply moving film a tint of hope. My Own Private Idaho might ultimately be about the greatness that exists even in the most miserable, marginal corners of life, acknowledging the possibility that—occasionally, fleetingly—this greatness is managed to be seen.
Unless this critic’s memory is fooling him, this Blu-ray’s image represents a notable revision of, and improvement over, the image that Criterion presented on its initial DVD release of My Own Private Idaho in 2005. There’s a general sense throughout the Blu-ray of the picture having been subtly clarified and brightened, which is appealing aesthetically as well as thematically, intensifying the ironic beauty of the many lonely American western vistas. Certain shots really shine with a nearly mocking impression of hyper-tactile Rockwellian Americana. Facial details and foreground and background textures are superb, while colors emit that earthy, gritty heat that’s familiar to Gus Van Sant’s films. Both Master Audio tracks are balanced and nuanced, with particularly delicate attention paid to the way that Van Sant layers pop songs over images to nearly subliminal aural effect, as illustrated by his heartbreaking use of Elton John’s "Blue Eyes."
The supplements included on the original Criterion DVD haven’t been updated, but this package warrants the carryover. There are inevitable repetitions of information from feature to feature, but there’s no weak link here; all of these pieces make for instructive, enjoyable viewing. Van Sant’s conversation with filmmaker Todd Haynes includes a number of illuminating riffs on the former’s looseness with his own interpretative script, which imbued the various symbols and concepts (the allusions to Henry IV, the occasionally Brechtian staging, the parody of pornography) with an aliveness that bridges everything together into a vital whole. Van Sant and Haynes discuss the film’s role in New Queer Cinema, but that’s better elucidated by the conversation with JT LeRoy and Jonathan Caouette, which includes a phone appearance by Van Sant that also explores the film’s undeniable influence on grunge culture. "Kings of the Road," an interview with Paul Arthur, contextualizes the film in terms of road movies and prior Shakespeare adaptations, while "The Making of My Own Private Idaho" most vividly addresses the director’s astute visual ideas. Collectively, these pieces analyze the film through virtually every conceivable prism, including the resonance it has for River Phoenix’s family, as embodied by sister Rain. Deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and a 60-page illustrated booklet, featuring 1990s-era interviews with virtually all of the film’s significant parties, round out a still-sterling package.
Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece, a daring work in New Queer Cinema featuring River Phoenix’s greatest performance, receives a subtle yet important visual facelift.