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  • Gareth Crook

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

What do I remember of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho? Not quite as much as I thought it seems. In fact most of it summarised in the opening minutes. River Phoenix falling asleep, those solid colour opening titles and that barn hitting the road in the middle of nowhere. I also remember it’s an unusual film of larger than life characters. Brought together by two prostitutes, Mike (Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves). River Phoenix spends half the film asleep due to his narcolepsy. Yet he still acts Keanu Neenoo off the screen. We’re firmly in art house territory though and Reeves gets away with it. It’s very 90s. Seattle grunge aesthetics before grunge was a thing. I’m not sure if it’s trying hard to be cool or is effortlessly so, but it taps that feeling with a cast of misfits on the edge of polite society, in thrift store clothes, sleeping rough, sleeping around, scoring drugs. Phoenix and Reeves work well together. Mike the homeless wanderer, a romantic notion. Scott the spoilt rich kid acting out against his inheritance, a thread loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which certainly explains the dialogue and his ability to float above all the shit going on. They bum around Portland, spouting poetic bollocks with Bob, something of a self professed leader of street kids. One of which being Flea doing his classic crazy cameo role. The first part of the film I could do without or at least, it’s not as good as the second half. The split is marked by the pair leaving Portland and heading to Idaho in search of Mike’s brother. Finding his brother isn’t an altogether pleasant experience through, the family history adding to Mike’s trauma, the cause and ignition for his fits. Watching Udo Keir in Bacurau, is what reminded me of My Own Private Idaho and he’s great here as Hans, an unlikely car parts salesmen, with a perchance for dramatics and 80s theatrical electro, that culminates in one of the weirdest sex scenes you’re ever likely to see. His meeting Mike and Scott affords them passage to Rome, as they try to track Mike’s mother. I’d completely forgotten this European jaunt. It’s here that Mike really loses himself. Scott falls in love and heads off, leaving Mike alone in a country with people he doesn’t understand. Not understanding things is a big part of Mike’s life, stressful situations, falling asleep, waking up without memory of how he got there, including on a plane back to Portland, where things come to a head whilst remaining vague and wide-open. Scott denouncing his past rebellious life, leaving Mike stuck in the loop of his. There’s theories about who picks up Mike, sleeping in the middle of the road in the final scene, but I’m glad Van Sant left it open for interpretation. I’m not sure I like this film all that much, but I don’t dislike it and I think it may have stuck with me more than I thought. Not in detail, but in mood, feeling. It’s one of those films I remember seeing late night on TV. It’s lazy plod, it’s flowery language, it’s slacker vibe, it’s pure indie and worth watching for River Phoenix alone.



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