Almost everything about My Own Private Idaho has a sense of beauty about it, no matter how distorted that beauty may be. That’s what strikes me every time I watch it; a sense of beauty, but also a huge amount of sadness. The film follows two male prostitutes named Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) as they roam through various settings, situations, strangers’ bedrooms and abandoned hotels. Mike comes from poverty, living in a broken home, and also suffers from narcolepsy; while Scott is a runaway and son of the mayor of Portland, Oregon. They come from two very different worlds, and this is reflected in the way that the story is told.
It does not have any sort of obvious plot, but is instead a collage of strange moments and different textures. Director Gus Van Sant’s arthouse background is very clearly shown in this particular movie, with strange vignettes set on the covers of porno mags and a lilting western soundtrack which also contains The Pogues. As a film, it feels strangely like flicking through a photo album, yet there is a cohesion to it.
The central theme is the idea of home and what it means to someone who was raised without one. This is exemplified by Mike’s desperate search for it, particularly for his long lost mother. Indeed, Mike’s desire for a mother could be described as at least one half of the plot. I say half because My Own Private Idaho was not based on one script, but two, along with a short story—all written by Gus Van Sant. While I would say Mike’s story is the crux of the film (and that’s probably because it is the most enchanting), Keanu Reeves’ side of things adds a whole other layer.
The second script was not completely original, but is instead based on Shakespeare’s Richard III. This means that the film suddenly meanders into a strange sort of Shakespearean dialogue, complete with a sense of tragedy and characters of fools and princes.
It is so odd, you watch the film expecting a film full of dirt, sex and drugs—but instead are left with this meandering mishmash of styles, settings and Shakespeare. I’ve read some reviews which found this aspect of the film jarring and thus unconvincing, but I found it quite the opposite. The film is tied together not by its plot, but by this strange melancholic dream like feeling that you’re left with long after it’s finished.
Due to Mike’s narcolepsy he may collapse at any point in his home, eyelids twitching into a sleep complete with grainy home movies and family houses falling from the sky. And when he wakes up, he may be where he was left—on a road in the middle of Idaho, or he may be in Italy. What is so incredible as a viewer is that you are completely taken along for the journey, despite its almost hallucinatory strangeness. That’s what makes it such a beautiful watch.