My Own Private Idaho

The Human Condition

                                                           – The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.”

Gus Van Sant’s Masterpiece

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote,
“The achievement of this film is that it wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass.”

The main source materials for My Own Private Idaho’s screenplay were two completely separate scripts and a short story, all written by Gus Van Sant. One of the scripts was a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV – part I and Henry IV – part IIVan Sant had actually discarded his original screenplay written in the 1970s after reading the novel City of Night by John Rechy and concluded that Rechy’s handling of the subject of street hustlers was better than his own. After unsuccessful attempts at acquiring Hollywood financing Van Sant explored the idea of making the film on minuscule budget with a cast of actual street kids. After Van Sant sent copies of his script to Reeves and then Reeves showed it to Phoenix, both agreed to star in the film on each other’s behalf.

Scott and Bob, their plot and, most of the time, dialogue is based on the Shakespeare play Henry IV; with Keanu Reeves playing the Prince Hal character of Scott, and William Richert playing the Falstaff like role of “King Of The Streets” Bob. Scott comes from an upper class family, he is the mayor’s son, a preppy prince who is rebelliously slumming in the streets defying even his sexuality. Bob is the leader of the band of hustlers and a father figure to Scott. Scott and Bob’s storyline plays out like a surrealist representation of Shakespeare. In stark contrast; Mike played by River Phoenix is a lovelorn narcoleptic drifter who spends his nights hustling on the streets of Portland, Oregon struggling with his interior journey from fragile adolescence to precarious adulthood, and his desultory attempts to find his missing mother. Flea (a founding member of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers) also appears in yet another Van Sant film as Budd, loyal manservant to mentor Bob. Scott and Mike decide to go on the road in search of mike’s mother which takes them from Portland all the way to Italy and back meeting quirky characters along the way including a client who likes his room very, very clean and a young woman who falls in love with Scott.


Idaho is, above all, a road movie and so we begin with a shot of a long stretch of highway that curves and disappears beyond the hill. Mike slides into the view with his cheek covered in a ragged blond sideburn and faint tracings of adolescent acne feels so close; it disorients and grounds you almost instantly. He looks down the road, “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road . . . It’s one kind of place . . . Like a fucked-up face,” he says talking not entirely to himself but not quite to us either. It smoothly gets us in touch with Mike’s way of seeing things and then Van Sant helpfully guides you through mike’s point of view of the relevant features : the eyes are two bushes on the hill and the smile the shadow of a passing cloud . Suddenly, Mike collapses in the middle of the road. He dreams a faded home movie of himself as a child, safe in the arms of his mother, seated on the porch of a wood-frame house. Clouds rush across the sky, salmon leap in slow motion upriver, and Mike wakes in a Seattle hotel room, being sucked off by a balding, beer-bellied man. Mike reaches orgasm and a wooden barn comes crashing out of the sky, splintering onto the highway. These first few scenes are enough to give you an idea that this is not your typical coming of age movie.

A Flawed Gem

Some people describe My Own Private Idaho as ‘cinematic poetry’ whereas others argue that it is nothing but ‘absolute drivel disguised as art’ or even a ‘forced Shakespearean disaster’. But for me it is a flawed and forced but impactful and evocative narration of basic human needs of ‘love’ and ‘home’. Its flawed nature is what gives it character and grounds it in reality despite of its over the top and theatrical treatment. The sixties underground film scene had long disappeared at the dawn of the 1990s but Andy Warhol was still a major influence and postmodernist aesthetics still dominated the art world to some extent. These influences are most prominently evident in Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s third feature film which in some ways remains his most ambitious project.

mike and scott

Van Sant masterfully mixes documentary style realism with over the top improvised, theatrical Shakespearean outbursts of dialogue interspersed with home-movie dream sequences and Rudy Valle and The Pogues playing on the soundtrack. Through a clever use of provocative characters, poetic dialogue and grounded surrealism,  Idaho successfully evokes that state of mind where we become most aware of our human condition.

Sadly from this pinnacle Van Sant would go slowly but very surely downhill towards the main stream “Good Will Hunting” and the misguided “Psycho” remake.

My Own Private River

Idaho is one of those movies that has been on my ‘to watch’ list for  a long time and although I had seen bits and pieces of it before I saw the entirety of the film just recently. Idaho is many things, a road movie, a comedy, a coming-of-age movie, a Shakespeare play, a surreal picture; but for me personally, it just screams River Phoenix from the beginning to the very end and I believe that must be the case with most people. In fact it has been almost three decades since the film’s initial release and it wouldn’t even be on my radar weren’t it for my pitiable obsession with River Phoenix.

At the time of release in 1991, in an interview Gus Van Sant said,                                                                           “The character of Mike was originally kind of asexual. Sex was something that he traded in, so he had no real sexual identity. But because he’s bored and they’re in the desert, he makes a pass at his friend. And it just sort of goes by, but his friend also notices that he needs something, he needs to be close, so he says, ‘We can be friends,’ and he hugs him. That was all it was going to be. But River makes it more like he’s attracted to his friend, that he’s really in love with him. He made the whole character that way.”


Anyone who has seen the movie knows that the campfire scene is one of the most incredibly touching and realistic scenes in the film and to know how much of it was pure River just makes me so happy. River Phoenix brings to his roles more than just his boyish charm and good looks. His performance as the narcoleptic and confused street hustler Mike is so poignant and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with him. None would or could argue that My Own Private Idaho, the best independent film of the 1990s, is the film that River Phoenix will long be remembered for.


Published by Samartha Ingle

Game designer and writer

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