It all starts and ends with a road. A road surrounded by blank, yellow plains and towering mountains. It's totally empty except for one soul, snoozing in the middle of the road. This is My Own Private Idaho, a hypnotic and haunting character study of disoriented youth.
Despite the title, the film mainly takes place in Portland, Oregon. Mike (River Phoenix) is a hustler living on the streets. He's a narcoleptic, waking up in random places and disilllusionized about his life and childhood. Scott (Keanu Reeves, by far his best performance) is a fellow hustler. He's the mayor's son and is rebelling against his controlling father. While Scott can go home anytime, Mike has no place to go. On the rough streets of Portland, they do drugs, steal, and seel their bodies to men and women for money. Soon enough, they hit the road for a journey of self discovery which just leaves them more confused than ever before.
Watching this 1991 masterpiece, I was reminded of everything from Bob Dylan to the Coen Brothers. Like the Coen Brothers, director Gus Van Sant uses the landscape to tell the stories of these characters. The cloudy, cold environment of Portland sets a dark and cold mood for the characters doomed lives. The huge, yet empty landscapes of Idaho show the vast loneliness in Mike's soul. The characters of Mike and Scott feel like they came out of Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, rolling with no direction home, like complete unkwowns.
Reeves performances usually consist of blank, lifeless stares. Here, he becomes his complex character who is just trying to escape the path of life his father wants for him. But the main great performance is River Phoenix. He is a troubled youth the audience feels for. He embodies the confusion and aimlessness the character experiences on a daily basis. We see a character whose life is destroyed by narcolepsy. It was not long before the actor's real life death. One of the great young actors of this generation who died to young. In a way, Phoenix's real life tragedy can be reflected by the struggles of Mike.
My Own Private Idaho is stunning visual poetry. It ranks up with Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy as one of the best road trip films. It's so great because it explores as far into the human soul as the road goes. And as Mike says "this road probably goes all around the world."