Re-Watch: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

My Own Private Idaho
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Based on: William Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V (loosely)
Cast: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Chiara Caselli, Flea, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier
Part of: /slash Filmfestival
Seen on: 23.9.2018

Mike (River Phoenix) and Scottie (Keanu Reeves) are hustlers, living in the streets of Portland. Scottie has been living this way for longer than Mike and shows Mike the ropes a little, introducing him to Bob Pigeon (William Richert) who is something between a pimp and a father figure for a lot of more or less homeless hustlers in the city. Scottie also takes care of Mike when he has one of his narcoleptic spells. Despite their closeness, there’s a chasm between Mike and Scottie as Mike doesn’t have many choices to live the way he does, while Scottie comes from a rich family and chose to hustle to embarrass them.

I saw My Own Private Idaho around 20 years ago and I understood very little of it back then. Seeing it now, opened up the film to me much more. That in itself is already a beautiful experience, but even without that part of the experience, the film is wonderful.

The film poster showing River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.

Van Sant created a dreamlike atmosphere in My Own Private Idaho, it’s a little surreal, a little illogical, a little fantastic. At the same time, it it firmly rooted in reality and a very precise examination of privilege: the way Scottie gets away with pretty much everything (scot-free, you might say, haha), how he can just dabble and needs to fear no real consequences as opposed to the other hustlers is pretty damning of the double-standards for rich and poor folk.

Part of the dreamlike feeling comes of the way Van Sant incorporates Shakespeare’s plays into the film. There is some dialogue, some characterization taken from the plays and transplanted into an entirely different setting. The apparent gap between film and plays becomes a recontextualization that enriches both.

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in the film.

It’s also a challenge for the actors who handle it very well. Especially Phoenix and Reeves are a dream-team and it is very much understandable why one would fall in love with Scottie, while Mike remains the emotional anchor during the film.

Ultimately, My Own Private Idaho is a sad, heart-breaking film, but at least it’s not a film that is without all hope, which is good. It’s evocative and engaging and beautiful and has something to say. I loved it much more seeing it now than I did when I saw it the first time as a teenager and barely understood what’s going on.

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in the film.

Summarizing: great.

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