‘My Own Private Idaho’ a sleepy, melancholic trip to nowhere

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My Own Private Idaho
Written by Gus Van Sant
Directed by Gus Van Sant
USA, 1991

Though he has made his share of more conventional dramas like Good Will Hunting and Milk, and received Oscar nominations by doing so, Gus Van Sant always seems to fall back to a more sedate style, such as that seen in his early film My Own Private Idaho. Following Mike (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic hustler from a broken home, and Scott (Keanu Reeves), the fallen son of a wealthy man, on a parentally inspired quest.

As friends, they couldn’t seem more different. Mike is quiet and hesitant toward those that employ his services while Scott is charismatic and willing. While Mike’s quest is to find his mother, visions of whom seem to haunt him, Scott’s life as a hustler is an act of rejection of his own father, the Mayor of Portland. Scott’s story, audibly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays with the Shakespearian dialogue seeming almost natural in the bloviating Bob (William Richert), leader of the hustlers, blends surprisingly well thematically with Mike’s own saga. These are two people coming from different places and likewise headed to different places that find themselves in the same place for a spell. The power is in the search for self and not the resolution.


The main flaw in this combination is the jarring collision of styles between the dialogue-heavy influence of Shakespeare and the barren quiet more reminiscent of Van Sant’s Gerry. These distinct styles may leave it an uneven experience for many viewers. Similarly, the contrast between Phoenix’s more mannered, methodical performance, which gained most of the acclaim upon the film’s initial release, and the looser and more engaging turns from Reeves and Richert may similarly divide viewers. Compared to his sometimes less than generous reputation as an actor, Reeves comes off quite natural, even when dealing with the Shakespearean content.

Even with the not so seamless nature of merging the two stories, Idaho has compelling characters and an intriguing, if slightly elusive, thematic payoff. It captures much of Van Sant’s promise as a director without too much of that which can doom him at times.

– Erik Bondurant

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