MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Writer/director Gus Van Sant adds an essential chapter to the New Queer Cinema movement of the early ‘90s that witnessed vibrant films from Todd Haynes (“Poison” 1992), Laurie Lynd (“RSVP” 1991), and Greg Araki (“The Living End”).
Van Sant’s understated masterwork is made all the more authentic by River Phoenix’s sensitive portrayal of Mike Waters, an orphaned narcoleptic street hustler. Mike is a best friend with Keanu Reeves’s bi-sexual hustler Steve. Steve buffers Mike’s precarious existence by rescuing him when Mike [frequently] goes into narcoleptic seizures that leave him unconscious and twitching for hours on end. Mike habitually passes out in the middle of streets. Mike is a dreamer by nature. He feels himself connected to the roads that he constantly travels, and passes out, on.
Mike is poor; Steve comes from money. Steve’s upcoming 21st birthday promises to bequeath the young social experimenter with a considerable portion of his mayoral father’s fortune. Fat Bill, Steve’s tutor in all things poetic and bum-like, has been promised a cut of the money. Steve has serious plans for how he plans to emerge in society.
The film’s centerpiece is an intimate fireside conversation wherein Mike expresses his love for Steve in the hope that it will be returned. This beautiful scene gives the movie its emotional grounding. The chemistry between Phoenix and Reeves glows.
As friends before making the picture, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves agreed to be in the relatively unknown director’s low-budget film for the honor of working together. In his ratty red jacket, Phoenix’s Mike is a cousin to James Dean’s sensitive boy in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Reeves brings a theatricality necessary to his character’s complex makeup.
Van Sant uses a lively set of filmic techniques to frame the narrative in Shakespeare’s authorial tones and structure while keeping a punk esthetic. There’s a little “Repo Man” dissonance in the film’s cynicism. A sequence, in which characters talk to one another from the front covers of gay porn magazines, is perfect for its expositional and humorous effectiveness.
Udo Kier plays a pedophile named Hans who is right out of “Germany, Year Zero.” Naturally, Hans puts together a threesome with Mike and Steve in his hotel room. Van Sant’s use of tableau imagery to convey sex acts is downright groundbreaking. Cinematic energy just flows.
Steve’s yellow café racer Norton motorcycle lets us to experience the exhilaration that Steve and Mike share. The charismatic bike also extends the cool sense of danger that hangs over the story.
“My Own Private Idaho” is both a love story and a tragedy. It remains the high point in Gus Van Sant’s career.
Rated R. 104 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)