While the beauty of William Shakespeare may be the flexibility of his work, My Own Private Idaho is an evidently loose understanding of Henry IV and Henry V. To be completely unaware of such an adaptation is likely, as I had been when first watching this piece from Gus Van Sant. Knowledge or not, this River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves starring piece is something any audience member can find themselves enjoying and engaging with. The star quality of the two leads, as well as that of the supporting performers, is a driving force behind how great performances and a steady hand behind the camera can lead to overwhelming efforts that capture two intertwining, yet completely isolated stories.
A great achievement in that regard, My Own Private Idaho collates two individuals from starkly different backgrounds but find themselves in identical situations as street hustlers. One has the opportunity to return to his comfortable lifestyle, the other does not. It is more interesting to try and understand this, and why Scott (Reeves) would not return to his normalcy. Van Sant either does not explore it or does not do so in great enough detail or interest, instead turning his attention to the search for Mike’s (Phoenix) mother. Strong leading performances certainly help, but something is missing from the narrative.
It lacks memorable moments. Coming away from My Own Private Idaho, it is hard to capture one particular scene of interest or amazement. Something that will blow the audience away entirely. There are shocking moments and clandestine revelations, but appearances from Udo Kier and James Russo in supporting capacity leave nothing worth musing on. Cutting lines are there for the taking, but the scene around them does not linger on the mind for longer than a few, crucial moments. Therein lies the problem with My Own Private Idaho, its emotionally charged response to events is fleeting and burns bright, but fades just as fast. With a strong dynamic between Reeves and Phoenix, it is somewhat underwhelming to see that there is no real payoff. No real final stage or moment between the two that could signify a fitting end. Perhaps that is the point, there are no real fitting ends. Yet, even then, the story Van Sant crafts and leaves to an audience is not entirely interesting.
My Own Private Idaho is a film of gluttony and lust. It leaves its mark through the emotionally charged narrative, an essential back and forth between Reeves and Phoenix is experienced and handled with extreme care. They work well together, and it is the clear draw, relied on often throughout. Van Sant has crafted a strong legacy with just one film, one that rips into love and emotion, developing the Shakespearian tragedy as a modern piece concerning drugs, cultural orphans and prostitution. Outcasts brought together soon find themselves dealing with the real-world problems they hoped to escape. With it, My Own Private Idaho brings the pioneering, avant-garde efforts of a director who, after this high, has only hit this constant level of quality once more.