MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
Review by Michael Jacobson
River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Chiara Caselli,
Director: Gus Van Sant
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: March 1, 2005
road never ends."
nothing else, My Own Private Idaho offers irascible testimony to how much
we lost when River Phoenix passed away. An
impressive screen presence from childhood, he delivered one solid performance
after another in his all-too-brief career.
But it was in this movie that he showed the world what a force he was to
be reckoned with.
work is so strong that I only wish I liked the overall film a little more.
My Own Private Idaho was director Gus Van Sant's follow-up to his
critically acclaimed Drugstore Cowboy (and by all accounts, the movie he
really wanted to make first). It's
a lovingly constructed but frequently sloppy piece of indulgence that has many
things to admire and many more to criticize.
more or less follows the story of Mike Waters (Phoenix) with no real beginning
or end to his tale. Mike is a
hustler and a narcoleptic, not necessarily in that order. Family traumas that reveal themselves over the course of the
movie help to paint him as an agonized loner starved for real love but willing
to trade the physical semblance of it for cash, be it with a man or woman.
His condition makes him an early indicator of Leonard Selby in Memento...always
in a waking state trying to bring himself back up to speed with his own life.
hangs out in Portland, Oregon with other street hustlers, who are colorful but
mostly unimportant characters (rock bassist Flea plays one of them).
His main connections are to his best friend Scott Favor (Reeves), a
mayor's son and soon-to-be heir to a fortune, who runs with the rough crowds and
hustles more for rebellion than need, and to Bob (Richert), the hippie-esque
leader of the troupe, whom Scott claims to love more than his own father.
with these characters that Van Sant wallows in his first major indulgence, which
is a bit of a bastardization of Shakespeare's Henry IV.
The characters dribble in the Bard's dialect, with a few key words
twisted around here and there. What's
the point? Maybe that Van Sant saw a kind of broken nobility in these
street hustlers. But it feels
forced and very unnatural.
Sant is a filmmaker who seems to enjoy taking other works and trying to improve
on them, but he frequently sets his sights too high. Like his remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he tries
to elevate both Shakespeare and Orson Welles into something else, but ends up
only showing how weak he is in comparison.
Most artists fall short of those two masters, to be sure, but not many
would dare invoke such brutal comparison.
film works best when Phoenix is allowed to explore and reveal his character, and
he does so fully, in many scenes that are memorable and heartbreaking.
A campfire setting turns into one of the most painful attempts to express
love I've ever seen...it goes beyond simple classifications of heterosexual or
homosexual and instead becomes a naked, heartfelt revelation of pure undefined
occurs during a road trip, of sorts, when Scott tries to help Mike find his long
estranged birth mother. The trek
goes through Idaho (of course), and ends up in Italy where a chance meeting with
a beautiful Italian girl (Caselli) snaps Scott out of his charade and back to
the man he was born to be (which may not have been the best thing for him).
Scott chose to be in that life, and he chose to get out of it.
Mike, last seen like Tennessee Williams' Blanche, is left to depend on
the kindness of strangers because he had no say in how his own life unfolded.
film is photographed with a loving eye, making the American Midwest almost a
character in and of itself. As
mentioned, there is much to like about it.
But the undisciplined eccentricity weighs it down, and what could have
been a landmark character study instead feels like a movie that Van Sant made
only to satisfy himself.
anamorphic transfer is quite beautiful, expressing Van Sant's vision of wide
open spaces and far reaching skies with integrity and clarity.
Colors are rich and natural looking throughout, and the print doesn't
seem marred by age or grain. Detail
level is impressive all the way.
the new 5.1 mix is very well done, with clear dialogue, haunting music cues
(especially the steel guitar version of "America the Beautiful", with
the rear stage providing some nice ambience in the movie's many quieter moments.
double disc set makes some interesting uses of extras...Disc One has the
trailer; now on to Disc Two.
Van Sant doesn't make a visual appearance here; instead we have an audio
interview conducted by director Todd Haynes, which is kind of a substitute
commentary track. Another
audio-only feature is a conversation between writer JT LeRoy and filmmaker
Jonathan Caouette. If you want to
see who you're listening to, there's a new making-of documentary that features
members of Van Sant's crew (not him nor his actors).
There's a video interview with film scholar Paul Arthur discussing the
classical roots of the screenplay, and a conversation between producer Laurie
Parker and Rain Phoenix. Rounding
out are 6 deleted scenes.
64 page booklet is another Criterion treasure trove, filled with photos, essays,
reprinted articles and interviews with Van Sant, Phoenix and Reeves.