In the late 1970s, Gus Van Sant – then just a humble production assistant eager to make movies of his own – came up with an idea for a film. He had read John Rechy's novel City of Night, which told the story of a group of male street hustlers who refused to admit that they were actually gay. Van Sant wrote a script based on the same basic idea, then wound up shelving it for a few years while he went to work on other things. The script took many different shapes over time, and eventually branched off into a series of different ideas: a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV called Howling at the Moon, a Las Vegas-set drama called Blue Funk and a story about a young hustler striking up a relationship with a German auto parts salesman called My Own Private Idaho.
Unable to come up with a satisfactory finished version of any of these scripts, Van Sant decided that he would borrow William S. Burroughs' infamous “cut-up” technique. He mixed and matched various pieces of the three scripts and came up with something he liked, but things continued to evolve even after shooting began. Stars Keanu Reeves (The Matrix) and River Phoenix (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) had a lot of ideas they wanted to bring to the table, and Van Sant decided to permit a considerable amount of improvisation and to indulge some last-minute alterations. The end result is a little disjointed, but it's also a consistently distinctive and frequently beautiful picture.
It begins with Mike (Phoenix), a young, homeless hustler who drifts around from one city to another seeking out clients. He suffers from narcoleptic seizures, which place him in a dream state of sorts that blur the lines between the past and present. He's indulging the sexual whims of a slovenly fat man, he's gazing at a long stretch of empty highway, he's dusting a client's house in his underwear, he's placing his head on his mother's lap, he's sleeping, he's shaking, he's walking. Over the course of the film, he moves from Seattle to Portland to Italy to Idaho, but we rarely see the journey: he simply moves from one place to another in the blink of an edit. He's fellated by a customer, and as he reaches climax, Van Sant cuts to an old barn falling out of the sky.
For a while, Mike finds himself in the company of other young street hustlers, all of whom are looked after by the middle-aged Bob Pigeon (director William Richert). In this section of the movie, the Henry IV element becomes particularly explicit, with Bob – an impoverished prince in a dingy blue bathrobe – playing the Falstaff role. Van Sant's dialogue is a curious blend of word-for-word Shakespeare recitations and modern slang... it's common to hear ornate soliloquies paired with crude profanities. Sometimes, Bob will switch from Shakespeare (“We have heard the chimes at midnight”) to another distinguished literary influence, such as the scene in which he offers an excerpt from Joyce Kilmer's “Trees.”
We meet a lot of characters during this section of the movie, but eventually, the film begins to zero in on Mike's relationship with Scott Favor (Reeves), another hustler who just happens to be the son of Portland's wealthy mayor (it's a long story). Mike falls in love with Scott, and eventually admits as much during one of the film's finest scenes: an honest, intimate campfire conversation that strips away the dream imagery and playfully stylized dialogue to give two people the opportunity to just talk to each other. Alas, there's a problem: Scott isn't convinced that he's actually gay. Mike stays by his side, anyway, watching in misery as Scott eventually decides that it's time to stop sleeping with guys and begin a relationship with a young Italian woman.
The film is constantly throwing a lot of different images, ideas and allusions at the viewer, but Van Sant's direction never feels frantic or desperate. Even the most wildly imaginative scenes – such as a sequence in which the young hustlers imagine themselves adorning the covers of gay porn magazines – have a certain quiet tenderness. There's a curious serenity to the film's tone that gives the whole thing a feeling of stability. The music is a particularly effective element, as sad, lonely steel guitar fragments of “America the Beautiful” drift in and occasionally give way to old Hank Williams songs. We see empty landscapes, gentle rivers, time-lapse photography of clouds drifting by, and certain scenes are condensed to solitary still images. We keep cutting back to Mike's face, full of confusion and longing. I don't know if it's possible to fully understand this movie, but it's impossible not to feel this movie.
My Own Private Idaho
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1991