My Own Private Idaho (1991)


*. Leslie Halliwell (d. 1989): “When Sam Peckinpah made Straw Dogs from a novel called The Siege of Trencher’s Farm he thought it unnecessary to explain to his audience the significance of his new title which, his publicists informed us on request, was taken from an old Chinese proverb. And when Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange he did not bother to retain the section of the Anthony Burgess novel which explained why it was so called. These almost identical incidents exemplify the kind of arrogance which besets film-makers in the seventies.”
*. And the nineties? I mentioned Halliwell’s observation in my notes on Straw Dogs, but it has an obvious application here too. The title of this film comes from the song “Private Idaho” by a New Wave dance band called The B-52s. You never hear it played in the movie. Even if it had been sampled the results would have had about as much relevance as a Chinese proverb. The lyrics are mostly nonsensical, though you could interpret them as perhaps addressing narcissism and materialism in an indirect way. There’s a lot made of a swimming pool, but there is no swimming pool in Gus Van Sant’s movie.
*. The title then is left up for grabs. Mike is from Idaho. For him it is the site of a strongly dysfunctional origin myth, as well as a state of mind that he never breaks free of. I don’t think we can be any more specific.
*. This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but that’s not how I feel about My Own Private Idaho. I think it’s a decent movie, though one that’s hamstrung by a disjointed script (a yoking together of two ideas Van Sant had been working on for nearly twenty years) and by the presence of Keanu Reeves.
*. It’s not enough to say, as many do, that Reeves “actually isn’t too bad in this movie.” He is very bad. As always.
*. As for the script, the two storylines — Mike and Scott, and Scott and Bob — never come together. The latter is a modernization of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), but the update is taken both too far and not far enough. That is, Van Sant leans on it too much but for no real purpose or effect. The Gad’s Hill robbery, for example, becomes a silly theatrical set piece without making any kind of point. And while William Richert is very good as Bob/Falstaff, there had to be more of him to make his rejection and death more meaningful, or just help make us understand why he’s behaving the way he does.
*. Richard Schickel found the Shakespeare “a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film,” and I wouldn’t disagree with the first part. “Imposition” suggests the sense we have of something being forced onto the material, not arising naturally from it. A less direct pattern of allusion would have worked better.
*. This leads to an overall sense of awkwardness. The people we meet always seem to be performing (the john who dances while Mike cleans, Udo Keir’s Blue Velvet-style floor show, Mike’s brother/father with his “corny,” and phoney, family history lesson, and of course Bob who seems like he’s always walking the boards). No one naturally inhabits their role. Even the slumming Scott never gives the impression that he’s having a good time.
*. The effect is to leave River Phoenix out on a kind of island. He’s the only one at home in his part, and delivers a terrific performance, especially given that the role was originally imagined as something less. He took what little was there and made it bigger. The campfire scene, for example, was apparently his own invention. I think he’s utterly believable as a hustler going nowhere, someone attractive enough to catch the eye of predatory older men but without the charm or intelligence to make any real friends. It’s hard to have a character like that be something other than empty and pathetic, but Phoenix does it.
*. Aside from Phoenix, I don’t care for the movie much. As I say, it’s awkward. The script is both clumsy and obvious, and most of the cast seem uncomfortable. But perhaps polish in such a film would seem out of place.
*. The ending is left ambiguous. Is Mike being rescued by a Good Samaritan, or picked up as road kill by a serial killer? As cynical a guy as I am, I’m optimistic. I think we’ve seen the bad already with the guys stealing Mike’s gear and his shoes, and it’s worth noting that the driver doesn’t thrown Mike in the back seat or the trunk, but puts him up front (not something you’d do with an abductee). But Mike is, once again, only a passenger. You’d like to warn him about where this is heading, but you know there isn’t any point.


27 thoughts on “My Own Private Idaho (1991)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    It sounds a lot like you’re dissing Keanu, and if that’s the case, you’d better have the readies to pay for another Tom Power interview, but this time, you’ll be begging for your life. Keanu is a great star, a terrific actor, and any other opinion is clearly just trolling.

    1. Alex Good

      Keanu had more good luck in finding himself in franchise roles than any star deserves. He’s good playing blank. When he has to act it isn’t pretty.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Never caught him on stage. Saw him in Much Ado About Nothing. Saw him in this. That was enough of his Shakespeare for me.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        Arguably never been more in demand. But playing familiar characters like Neo and Wick. He’s a great star; not sure anyone was good in Branagh’s Mucxh Ado.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        I’d agree with him being a great star. So’s Tom Cruise. Emma and Denzel were good in Mucx Ado. Branagh wasn’t bad. The rest were floundering.

    1. Alex Good

      That was a fun song. I had a friend who had a car that was as big as a whale at the time, and we’d joke about how it was about to set sail.
      This movie isn’t as much fun.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Everyone wants to dance with the best. I mean Shakespeare. But lots of people would like to dance with Keanu too.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Tom actually went on to play the same character (Hal) that Keanu does here. Will be doing his version next I think.

  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    Just like you, I’m not a fan of Keanu. He got lucky with one franchise, and has used it to distract from his bad acting and faltering career. Bob Odenkirk’s an action star! Anyone can be an action star! But I do love River Phoenix. May search this out.

  3. Bookstooge

    These almost identical incidents exemplify the kind of arrogance which besets film-makers in the seventies.

    Yeah, I don’t think it’s just in the 70’s, but a more generalized attitude overall. Only the plebes and suckers pay money to watch this film and while that supports it, directors and their ilk don’t care. Not that I’m cynical about hollywood or anything 😉

    I liked Reeves in the Bill&Ted trilogy but other than that, he’s definitely an action movie kind of actor. he’s good at it and really should stay with it. I’m concerned about the upcoming Matrix movie….

      1. Bookstooge

        I concur. While I own the whole trilogy, I only watch the first one now.

        I don’t think it is just hollywood that has run out of ideas. I’ve watched a couple of amazon “originals” and man, a lot of it is just violence with some sort of story tacked on to keep the watchers watching. Shock and shock to give them something to talk about.

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