Review: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

my own private idaho

I never had my own private anything, maybe all I needed to get privacy was to be gay!

Written By: Gus Van Sant
Directed By: Gus Van Sant

I have never claimed to be the biggest fan of William Shakespeare. That’s probably why I was less enamored with the portions of My Own Private Idaho that leaned heavily on the Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V stage plays of the British playwright and legend. That aspect of My Own Private Idaho didn’t ruin the film for me, but it did distract from what I felt was the more important, and much better done, allegory of counterculture as a replacement for a fractured family. That aspect of My Own Private Idaho soared, and is the main reason why I like the film so much. The connection to Sir Shakespeare was present, and it wasn’t bad, but it left me lukewarm on the whole.

Speaking of the allegorical elements of My Own Private Idaho, those impressed me very much. At first I thought My Own Private Idaho was going to be a tale about gay street hustlers and the transient nature of their lives. At about the midway point of the film Gus Van Sant switched the focus from the transients to the transient nature of family in their lives. Bob Pigeon, and the rest of the hustlers, are the surrogate family that Scott and Mike so desperately want. They aren’t normal though, and therein lies the problem for the character of Scott. He isn’t counterculture, he’s just a rebel, and yes, there is a difference. He doesn’t want for a new family, he only wants to upset his present family. He accomplishes his goal, but he doesn’t appear very happy at the end of the film. Things aren’t a whole lot better for Mike, but he at the very least feels some sense of belonging with a group of people. That group will hurt him and steer him wrong at times, but they will accept him for who he is, and that’s the way that family is supposed to function. Mr. Van Sant handles the allegorical elements of My Own Private Idaho with great aplomb, but that shouldn’t be all that surprising with Mr. Van Sant’s tendency to incorporate allegory into his work.

I was also impressed with performances of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. I’ll fully admit to never being a huge fan of Mr. Reeves, and not having seen much of Mr. Phoenix’s work. The reason both men impressed me in My Own Private Idaho was because of how easy it was for me to believe in their characters. The emptiness of Scott and the desire to belong were easy to read in Scott and Mike due to the performances of Mr. Reeves and Mr. Phoenix. Who knows how great Mr. Phoenix could have been if drugs hadn’t of ended his career. And, while Mr. Reeves is capable of bringing the terrible, he can be quite the competent actor, and in the case of My Own Private Idaho, far beyond competent on occasion.

The artistic visuals of Mr. Van Sant are present in My Own Private Idaho, but in a lot of ways this is a more conventional work than the typical Gus Van Sant film. The still visuals of sex scenes that represent the mechanical and uncaring nature of the sex are clearly from Mr. Van Sant’s more artistic side. Missing, however, are the longer takes, and the willingness of Mr. Van Sant to linger on a shot. His shooting style is very economical in My Own Private Idaho. That’s not better or worse than his other work, but it is different.

My Own Private Idaho stumbles in a few key realms, such as its depiction of narcolepsy and its over-reliance on the Sir Shakespeare works. Those don’t detract too much from My Own Private Idaho. While it can’t hope to match the heights of Mr. Van Sant’s career, My Own Private Idaho does reach a high level of quality. My Own Private Idaho continues the trend of me very much enjoying Mr. Van Sant’s non-mainstream fare. A great film is nothing to take for granted, even if I get the feeling that My Own Private Idaho, much like the majority of Mr. Van Sant’s career, has been taken for granted. It’s an intellectually stimulating and visually interesting film, and that’s why My Own Private Idaho is a film worth taking the time to watch.




2 responses to “Review: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

  1. Keanu Reeves is a direct reflection of his director. All of his really good performances have come from strong directorial collaboration. When the director doesn’t have a strong vision of how to use Mr. Reeves (Coppola, Branagh, etc.), then the performance falls apart.

  2. You may be on to something, but I suppose I’ve been lucky enough to not have seen a lot of his bad performances.

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