There are very few movies that makes us wish we had never seen it in the first place. My Own Private Idaho falls under the same category, except, its the overwhelming sadness which engulfs us as the movie ends which makes us feel that way.
Calling Gus Van Sant's My own private Idaho, a bold and imaginative film, would be an understatement. The only other film of Gus Vant Sant's that I had watched was Good will hunting and Psycho, the latter of which was more of a travesty than a remake. But I had always liked Good Will Hunting and thought it reflected his ingenuity as a director. But after watching My own private Idaho, Good Will Hunting seems to pale in comparison.
My own private Idaho cannot be described in one review. It cannot even be fully appreciated in one viewing. Van Sant explores a plethora of motifs and manages to mold them together to show us the universal meaning of 'home' and how it differs with respect to each character.
To Mike, home is where his mother is. As a result he spends the entire film searching for her, for which he is even willing to travel all the way to Italy. But sadly, Mike has a highly sublime image of his mother and his childhood, which are both nothing but a faux fantasy that he holds onto . To Scott however, home is just another word in the dictionary. He's the truant son of a rich Mayor and thus feels compelled to rebel. This takes him to the streets of Portland where he takes up the vocation of a gay prostitute, which is where he meets Mike, a fellow hustler. Scott is loosely based on Prince Hal, the son of the king in Shakespeare's Henry IV.
Mike is also narcoleptic, a condition of the brain which causes the person to suddenly fall into brief intervals of sleep. This makes Mike's story even more sad as he has no means to support himself and thus finds himself getting picked up by strangers and waking up in different parts of the country.
However, Scott is the only one who seems to take care of Mike when he needs him the most, something which gives way for a strong friendship which develops between the two and as the movie progresses, a romantic affection on Mikes part. Together they embark on a journey to find Mike's mother, which takes them from the grimy streets of Portland to the magniloquent structures of Rome.
There are lots of things that strike you as odd when watching this movie, Van Sant goes as far as he can in breaking the traditional norms of movie making. The best example being how the dialogues between the hustlers are in Shakespearian prose. I am not sure whether it works well for the movie though. But it does provide for some interesting viewing, especially if you're bored with the clichéd mainstream presentation of plot points and dialogues.
The movie is without doubt a visual treat. Its cinematography brightens up the film with its astounding imagery of the long sky engulfing roads and clever shots of the clouds looming above, each time Mike falls asleep. His thoughts while sleeping being described by scenes of salmons jumping upstream.
This would have been just another film, with the audiences admiring the picture for its novelty and brilliance and leaving the theater not wasting another second thinking over what they had seen - if it wasn't for one person. River Phoenix, who plays Mike, literally owns My own private Idaho and this movie wouldn't have been the same without him, no offense to Van Sant .
River doesn't just portray Mike, he is Mike Waters. River plays Mike to perfection. There is a certain rawness to his performance which makes his plight, his sad existence, his unrequited love for Scott and his drug addiction - all the more tragic. Ang lee might have spend millions of dollars in making a gay romance flick like Brokeback mountain, but the five minute conversation that Mike and Scott have during the campfire scene is more touching than the two hour movie could ever hope to be. Mike doesn't have a lot of dialogues but his mere presence touches your soul, as his face wears that constant grief and sadness and with one look at his face you can tell that he is wounded deep down.
It was hard to believe River wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this performance. He did however win numerous accolades, including the best actor at the Venice film festival. Its so hard to accept the fact that he's gone and one wonders, how far he would have gone and how many brilliant performances he could have delivered.
Overall, if you want a movie that makes you think, takes you beyond the usual grasps of reality into transcendentalisms and is quirky and unconventional. But mostly, if you need to watch some great performances, and in River's case, sheer excellence, then this is the movie for you. My own private Idaho can either be loved dearly to the point of obsession or thought of as trite and chucked down the dustbin. Either way, you'll remember the story of Mike Waters and reminisce about him with pain, long after you've seen it.
The movie has its flaws, but at the end of the day when put together, the salmons and clouds do help us in understanding what and how different the term 'home' can be, which is what this movie is essentially about. So my review-o-meter points to a nine out of ten for this bold and piquant masterpiece, that thoroughly deserves its cult status, to which it has been elevated.
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