The first image we see in My Own Private Idaho is a young guy standing by a lonely road waiting for a ride. We hear crickets chirping. Birds chattering. The landscape is huge and beautiful and rolls all the way back to the horizon where it meets the sky. The guy, Mike, starts speaking to no one in particular. He talks about how he recognizes this road. He’s been on it before. He says it looks like a fucked-up face. Then he starts to tremble, and within seconds he has fallen down in the middle of the road, fast asleep.
Mike is a narcoleptic, which means he can fall asleep at any time with little warning. He’s also a hustler. He wanders around the northwest, hitting the cities, turning tricks at night and hanging out with friends during the day. Obviously, it could cause problems for a hustler if he’s prone to passing out when he’s with a client. At one point he has a seizure when he’s with an older woman. It seems she reminds him of his mother….
This rootless wanderer, a hustler in search of a home, is at the center of My Own Private Idaho. Mike is the classic Van Sant character. He wants to connect with the people around him, but he’s too innocent and too fragile to play their games. He sells his body for money, but he doesn’t know the facts of life. Van Sant builds this complex, rambling film around a young man who’s searching for some kind of perfect love. Mike hangs out with the hustlers in Portland, rides a motorcycle to see his brother in Idaho, and even takes a plane to Italy looking for that warm, nurturing embrace. But he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. He’s chasing a fantasy that only exists in his mind.
Mike thinks about his mom a lot. He has visions of her holding him, speaking to him softly, reassuring him. In his memory she’s an idealized figure, gentle, sweet, loving. From what we learn about Mike’s childhood, though, it was anything but ideal. Apparently his mother spent some time in an institution. He hasn’t seen her for years. Throughout the film Mike talks about wanting a home, a family. He feels lonely and lost. Really he just wants to be loved. Unfortunately, he ends up falling in love with Scott.
Scott is also a hustler, but not because he needs the money. His dad is a bigshot in Portland. The family is loaded. Scott could be living in the lap of luxury, but he likes living on the street, drifting around, doing drugs and pulling petty scams. He also likes the fact that his lifestyle is a slap in the face to his father’s straight world. When a city official shows up with a legion of cops to fetch the wayward youth home, Scott pretends to be having sex with Mike. He just wants to see the embarrassed looks on the squares’ faces. Scott revels in the crazy, messy world of the misfits who scrape to get by on the streets of Portland. He especially enjoys the company of an aging vagabond named Bob Pigeon, who he calls his true father. But this lowlife prince knows he’s slumming. He knows that in the end he’ll cut Bob loose, along with all his other hustler friends.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Van Sant has lifted this part of the story from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But there’s another layer here, because the relationship between Scott and Bob is actually based on Orson Welles’ adaptation of the play, Chimes at Midnight. Welles’ film essentially follows the structure of Henry IV, but there is a major change in emphasis. Where Shakespeare focussed on the prince’s transformation from roustabout to ruler, Welles’ drama is about the prince’s betrayal of his best friend, his “true father”, Falstaff. And this is the heart of Van Sant’s film, too. Mike and Bob both love Scott. They’re innocent enough to believe that he loves them, too. And he does, but only up to a point. When the time comes for him to take over his father’s role, he does it without hesitating. And there’s no place for his old friends in his new world.
There’s another thread running through the film, so subtle that it’s almost subliminal until the very end. A few of the characters, including Mike’s mother and brother, are seen wearing crosses. At first I wondered what this was about, because I couldn’t see anything explicitly Christian about the movie. But it all becomes clear at the funeral for Scott’s father. We see a group of people gathered in a cemetery, everyone dressed in their Sunday best, and the minister reading from the Gospel. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” There’s an accordion playing softly in the background, but it’s not part of the service for Scott’s father. We see that another funeral is taking place just a few hundred feet away, or maybe not so much a funeral as a wake. A group of Scott’s former friends are gathered around Bob’s casket, getting ready to lay him to rest. Their gathering starts out quietly, but soon becomes loud and raucous, with everybody screaming Bob’s name. The formal service for Scott’s rich father, one of those who laid up his treasures on earth, is dull, dreary, dead. The mad gathering to mourn Bob is made up of misfits and outcasts, loners and losers. The people Christ spoke for.
Van Sant knew exactly what he was doing when he cast River Phoenix as Mike, the young, clueless, drifter hustler. He seems to just be living in the moment, a pretty boy with innocent eyes, hanging on a street corner, waiting for a trick or a friend to come along. Keanu Reeves is excellent as Scott, a suave, smug rich kid who knows from the start that he’ll eventually cut all these people loose. And then there’s the great Udo Kier. As Hans he has an awkward charm, a winsome vulnerability, and he provides some of the film’s best comic moments. Kier is in a category all by himself. There’s no one else like him.
My Own Private Idaho has so many different layers that it’s hard to grasp them all. I get the sense that this was a very personal project for Van Sant, and that he poured everything he was thinking and feeling into it. It’s not a neat, tidy, linear film. It’s a sprawling, rambling epic. A poem in sounds and images. Van Sant shows us hustlers hanging in coffee shops, houses falling out of the sky, and the vast grandeur of the American northwest. The soundtrack is a lovely patchwork that weaves together America, the Beautiful, music from the Renaissance, and the Pogues. It also includes original material by Bill Stafford that echoes the melancholy beauty of decaying hotels and lonely roads. Van Sant is trying to say a lot in this film, and I really don’t care if it all fits together. This isn’t a movie you understand with your head. It’s a movie you feel in your heart.