My Own Private Idaho

dir. Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991)  is something of a rough collage. Constantly shifting styles, the film, at different times, has the feeling of a pseudo-Shakespearian comedy, a familial melodrama, and a classic road tale in the vein of Easy Rider.  And to add even more confusion, all of these elements are played out in gay-prostitute underworld of the Pacific Northwest (oh and a little bit in Idaho and Italy too).  The film follows the life of Mike (River Phoenix)-an allergic, narcoleptic, and emotionally violent hustler who goes about his business in the slums of Seattle.  In these ventures, Mike soon encounters Scott (Keanu Reeves) an old friend and fellow call-boy.  From here, the two travel around on many adventures-the purpose of which eventually crystallizes into the search for Mike’s estranged mother.

This longing, on Mike’s part, to finally see mommy again gives the film a place to go, but is far from its most interesting aspect.  Instead, the viewer will be drawn to the contradictory world members of the Northwest’s prostitute sub-culture occupy.  In many ways the existence of these Hustlers is quite miserable.  They sleep on roofs or in doorways, and to survive, must indulge their client’s bizarre fetishes, which Van Sant does not hesitate to display in painful detail.  But in another way, the characters of the film’s sub-culture have a vibrant quality that cannot be found in the “legitimate” world their clients occupy.  Many wear flamboyant neon jackets with tight jeans and cowboy boots that clearly set them apart from the more conventional sort.  Others speak in a vernacular that strangely and cleverly blends hipster slang with Shakespearian English-often giving what would be normally mundane observations a distinctly poetic quality.  And all of Idaho’s Hustler characters possess the defiant demeanor-associated with all the proudest counter-cultures-that allows them to say “yeah I’m weird, and fuck you” with every step.

But superficial differences aside, the hustler world that Mike, Scott, and the many others in the film occupy is permeated by a class hierarchy that sharply resembles that of the “normal” world.  Throughout the film, Van Sant plays with this irony to an often divesting effect.  His ability to make Idaho so strange and yet so familiar is what makes it an engaging film.

Nathan Walker


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