In Gus van Sant’s seminal classic from 1991, My Own Private Idaho, a young Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix are searching for truth, even if they have to lie, cheat, and steal their way to get there at times. What perhaps may be one of the greatest road trip films ever made, the duo do have a literal destination in mind, but the scope of their adventure goes far beyond simply looking for Mike Waters’ mother. The two are on a free-flowing trip where the destination isn’t literal, but hopefully, will manifest itself into something true and authentic upon arriving. Flowing as freely through life as the camerawork in this film, the boys ride wherever the wind seemingly takes them. Luckily, it consistently seems to bring them to the right places, however painful the experiences there may become. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, the “quest” Waters and Scott Favor go on is one full of subtleties, one of longing, one of dreams.
The use of dreamy, and oftentimes surreal, visual storytelling is pure fun, but also thematically weighted. Van Sant paints a dreamscape of a world through the eyes of narcoleptic Mike, played so wonderfully tragic by Phoenix. As Waters fades in and out of consciousness due to stress-induced narcolepsy, his world passes him by as he feels helpless to stop it. Even as his friend Scott waits for his inheritance money to be accessible, he too is told repeatedly that he is simply passing through life by his father. What’s worse, is his father sees it as a sort of divine punishment. As we catch glimpses of the two making their way around the country and beyond, van Sant sometimes literally uses visual flairs to represent these moments lost to time. Those that reside solely in memory: The sex scenes are fascinating, appearing in literal flashes for less than 3 seconds at a time. A house falling from the sky upon climax. Hearing a heartbeat, or the far off howling of a lone wolf when your emotions have been stripped bare for all, or maybe just that one specific person, to see. A wonderment of the ocean waves as you hear them distantly through a seashell. The brilliance that Van Sant displays in these solitary moments only allow the impact of character decisions to hit that much harder. It’s a deeply tragic film, yet it’s still very easy to find yourself often laughing at the tongue-in-cheek humor littered throughout.
While this is loosely inspired by Shakespearean tales, the film doesn’t mind poking fun at the monologues littered throughout the playwright’s career. Comically delivered to nobody at times, these grand gestures of dialogue are sometimes met with a sense of ridiculousness. Yet it’s through a shared sense of companionship these jokes are made, brought together by tragedy time and time again. A landmark in New Queer Cinema, My Own Private Idaho is an empathetic film from a time when its very existence was taboo. With the inclusion of actual people off the street discussing their real-life stories of hustling, prostitution, and drifting, Van Sant’s film is a tale of tragedy. Yet there is some hope to it all. Phoenix makes a point to say, “This road will never end”. And if that’s true, then that must mean someone will always be passing by to help. At least, that’s all we can hope for.