Standing on the highway in the existential middle of nowhere, Mike (River Phoenix), the hapless, too-desperate-to-care drifter at the center of My Own Private Idaho, gazes out at the gorgeously vast, sun-drenched horizon and wonders if he’ll ever find a way home-if, indeed, there’s even a home out there. The music on the soundtrack is too dreamy to be real and too funny to be a dream: It’s a Hawaiian steel guitar twanging out ”America, the Beautiful,” the melody so slow and wavery it literally sounds bent.
In his follow-up to Drugstore Cowboy (1989), the gifted writer-director Gus Van Sant has bucked expectations in more ways than one. My Own Private Idaho, which stars Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as street hustlers drifting around the Northwest — one homeless and mostly gay, the other a bisexual rich boy who turns tricks out of boredom and rebellion — blithely detonates any conventional wisdom about the sorts of roles young Hollywood heartthrobs are supposed to be taking on. Van Sant, though, isn’t just out to shock the mainstream. The viewers who may actually be most taken aback by My Own Private Idaho are those who loved Drugstore Cowboy and were hoping for a companion piece, a movie that burrows into the desolate street culture of young gay prostitutes with the same outlaw vitality that marked Van Sant’s comic tale of early-’70s Portland druggies.
Sorry, folks. Where Drugstore Cowboy was a work of straight-ahead naturalism, My Own Private Idaho is far more stylized, a postmodern road movie with a mood of free-floating, trance-like despair. Drugstore featured the charismatic Matt Dillon as a benumbed but earnest hero struggling to hold his ”family” of drug-addled thieves together (and even trying to go straight). In Idaho, River Phoenix’s Mike is the most disaffected protagonist imaginable, a shambling, out-of-it kid who suffers from narcolepsy. (In a running gag, he collapses into slumber whenever he gets too stressed.) Van Sant has his arty side, and this time he’s given it full rein. One section is even lifted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, with a Falstaffian street ringleader named Bob (played with strutting, demonic gusto by the veteran director William Richert) lording it over his wolf pack of boy runaways. Richert is a powerful presence, but the film — for nearly half an hour — goes thud. The updated Elizabethan dialogue is simply too much of a conceptual stunt. It’s as if Van Sant, who’s openly gay, felt some misguided need to prove that a movie about male prostitutes could be Art.
He needn’t have tried so hard. My Own Private Idaho lacks the dramatic punchiness of Drugstore Cowboy, yet it’s a rich, audacious experience. The movie isn’t really about being a hustler (or being gay). It is, rather, an elusive poetic fable about a young man without a home, a family, a self. It’s about rootlessness as a spiritual state. Mike keeps having grainy, home-movie flashbacks to the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a kid. She’s his only real memory, yet his visions are so fleeting they’re like borrowed experiences. Essentially, Mike has no past — and so he doesn’t quite have a present, either. Keanu Reeves’ Scott, on the other hand, has a home; his father is the mayor of Portland, no less. He rejects his privileged background, at least for a while, knowing full well that his flirtation with the gutter is only temporary. Scott agrees to help Mike find his mother, and the two go off on a trek that leads them through the Northwest backroads, over to Rome, and then back again.
Phoenix’s slightly anonymous quality works for him here, and he gives an extraordinary performance. His Mike is dazed and weirdly becalmed, like a drugged-out animal living on his last shreds of instinct. When his pain comes to the fore, it’s startlingly direct. Sitting around a campfire with Scott, who he knows sleeps with men only for money, Mike says, ”I really wanna kiss you, man,” and it’s the saddest, loneliest declaration of love imaginable.
The film’s few sexual encounters go by in silent, oblique flashes, with the actors posed in live-action freeze-frames, as if Van Sant were trying to remind us that the word ”ecstasy” derives from ”stasis.” Van Sant also stages a couple of terrific sequences with the boys and their tricks — one (Mickey Cottrell) a flamboyant neatnik who has Mike scrub the kitchen with Dutch cleanser, the other a German salesman (Udo Kier) who performs a deranged cabaret number. There’s so much twisted life to these characters that it’s obvious Van Sant, if he’d wanted, could have turned the entire movie into a wild, ribald comedy — a chickenhawk Candide — about life in the gutter.
My Own Private Idaho, on the other hand, often seems as rootless as poor Mike. Yet the film has an authentic emotional lyricism. When Van Sant shows us speeded-up images of clouds rolling past wheat fields, the familiar device transcends cliche, because it’s tied to the way that Mike, in his benumbed isolation, experiences his own life — as a running piece of surrealism. The sheer, expressive beauty of those images haunted me for days. A-