Dir. Gus Van Sant
(1991, R, 104 min)

It’s hard to know what Gus Van Sant you’ll get on any given day. Sometimes it’s the deeply inward, taciturn filmmaker of Paranoid Park and Elephant. Other times it’s the eccentric, experimental man of Psycho. And then comes the much more conventional director of films like Good Will Hunting, Milk, and Finding Forrester. My Own Private Idaho, from 1991, is one of his earliest films and falls more into the second category (though it bears little resemblance to his Psycho remake). It’s strange and wildly uneven, but when it works it works well.

It’s made up of two different stories, one good and one not as good, which are then awkwardly mashed together. The good one is a sad story about Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a drifter in the Pacific Northwest who makes his living as a street hustler. He’s a narcoleptic who passes out at times of stress, much to the dread of his clients, and he frequently flashes back to images of his mother, whom he hasn’t seen for years. To track her down he enlists the help of his best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the subject of the second, not-as-good story.

Scott is the prodigal heir to a fortune who has rebelled against his father by living on the street under the tutelage of Bob Pigeon (William Richert), who surrounds himself with thugs and scoundrels but seems less like a pimp than a caregiver, the king of an island of misfit boys. During his scenes, the dialogue switches to florid verse, and it becomes clear – though not immediately to me – that Van Sant is riffing on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” Scott is the mischievous Prince Hal, and Bob is Falstaff, destined to be abandoned after the young prince assumes the throne. But knowing this doesn’t make the storyline any less annoying, because Van Sant doesn’t commit. Some scenes are written and performed as if by an amateur Shakespeare company, while others are naturalistic, making the Shakespearean scenes seem pretentious and out of place.

Much more interesting is Mike, who not only longs for his mother but for his best friend. Mike and Scott are both hustlers, but only Mike is gay, which creates a sad imbalance in their friendship. For Scott, life on the street is a temporary rebellion against family obligation, and we sense an air of superiority towards the hustlers and thieves he has thrown in with; he doesn’t count himself among them, he’s only slumming it. For Mike, however, they are his home, his family, and his livelihood. He needs Scott much more than Scott needs him.

The film’s best scene takes place while the two are camped out on the side of the road and Mike reveals his feelings in a performance by Phoenix that is utterly perfect in its expression of hopeless longing, and as Scott begins to drift away from him we realize just how wayward and lonely Mike really is. His life is reflected by the film’s bookend shots of a road stretching emptily for miles in either direction, with no clear destination, and at the mercy of whatever comes along. He needs the safety of someone who cares about him. Without that, there’s no hope for him.