Mythic River
Marianna Martin on My Own Private Idaho

Let’s acknowledge up front that, no matter how hard we strive to focus on directorial matters, the star personas of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves must come to the fore of any discussion of My Own Private Idaho, and we might as well let them do so rather than prevaricating uncomfortably. Idaho is a key film in understanding these two actors’ careers. In the years following Idaho, Keanu Reeves went on to become Neo and die for our sins in The Matrix, and River Phoenix simply died, overdosing two years later in a Hollywood club. His star image is forever frozen in the “live fast, die young” mode, placing him alongside James Dean, but that is far from all the two young stars from different decades had in common. In 1991, at the time of Idaho’s release, it was still no small matter for a male star to “play gay” in a film, and a great deal of press was generated by the “controversial” and “courageous” choice by these rising young actors to play gay hustlers. The “official” story, as propagated by those involved in the production, was that Reeves and Phoenix were such good, professionals that they were able to artistically transcend the nature of these characters so alien to their true selves, as is often hyped about performances by versatile actors.

Yet if one stops to think about Reeves and Phoenix’s careers to that date, “versatile” might not be the first choice of adjective to apply. Additionally, though not emphasized by the mainstream media, Reeves and Phoenix both had substantial gay followings, and it was smart business, and not just artistic moxie, for them to take these roles at a time when Hollywood was showing an increased awareness of gay and lesbian markets. Even beyond this, both Reeves and Phoenix were persistently rumored to be gay or bisexual themselves (in fact, a tall tale echoes to this day that Reeves and David Geffen were secretly wed in Europe years ago!). Playing a queer character was not an acknowledgement of one’s own queerness, but it was certainly not a denial either, and neatly left open the maximum number of possibilities for their fans to interpret their images. Like James Dean, who was a gay fan icon in the 1950s, and persistently rumored to be gay himself, Phoenix had an image of boyish vulnerability under a tough façade, making him popular with both men and straight women. There are some wonderful essays on the image of the lost maternal in Dean’s films and in his image itself, and that quality wasn’t absent from Phoenix’s characterizations, especially in Idaho, in which his character, Mike, literally searches for his lost mother. Mike is emotional, vulnerable, in search of love and connection. Watching Idaho now, it’s impossible not to read Phoenix’s imminent demise retroactively into the film as well. Phoenix and Dean both died young, their personal lives remain mostly unknown, and their screen histories were left to be subjectively rewritten in our eyes as foreshadowing their deaths, reflective of any mysteries about their off-screen existences—they are the only “clues” we have to work with in the absence of the living.

If Phoenix closely modeled an existing archetype in Dean, Reeves brought a reflection of no one, or indeed nothingness to the film. Reeves’s acting skills are, at best, controversial, and the quality he brings to the screen most consistently, beyond an androgynous and vaguely exotic physical beauty, is a blankness into which almost anything can be projected. Mishandled this blankness often veers comically towards Reeves seeming drugged or slow, but Van Sant makes use of it to terrifying effect in Idaho. Scott is an empty canvas, a surface on which he imposes different identities at whim. Scott can be a debauched street hustler or the privileged son of the mayor and a pillar of society, but it isn’t because of a multiplicity of self and contradictory depth within him. Scott is allsurface, glib posture, and performance with a horrible, empty, even inhuman void just beneath. Scott is whatever he pleases to play today, and no more. In contrast with Mike’s vulnerability and desperation of emotion, Scott is incapable of real connection, nor does he seek it. Scott is perpetual performance embodied.

I approach Idaho in this seemingly sideways manner, because this perspective on images and performances offered me the first glimmer of hope for any real penetration through the surfaces of the film, which is impressively aggressive in keeping the spectator at a distance. This is not the Brechtian distanciation of Godard, highlighting the artificial and refusing the spectator the illusions of identification or reality, nor is it the “up yours” of Von Trier, constantly assaulting with unpleasantness and ordeal where we might seek diversion and pleasure, but instead a persistent removal of the viewer from any sense of comfortable intimacy with the frame or the characters for more than a fleeting moment. When Mike reaches out to Scott, in a nakedly emotional declaration of feeling for him, the trappings of mannered performance fall away, and it seems Mike is moved by the opportunity that the privacy of the campfire setting offers for shattering the status quo of his relationship with Scott. Save for the film’s viewers, the two are emphatically alone together at last. It is of great importance here that Mike never makes eye contact with Scott, nor with the fourth wall, but simply says what he has to say without considering a wider audience. The emotional authenticity of the scene is achieved by these introverted means and stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film, serving as a sharply punctuated break into sympathy for the audience before that connection is rebuffed yet again, here with the help of Reeves’s mannered and blank response, clearly of an emotional tenor many orders of magnitude less invested than Phoenix’s. Given Phoenix’s famed working of the dialogue and delivery, it is curious to speculate how much of Reeves “went into” his reaction. With that denial of intimacy there is a harsh reminder that we are indeed spectators and only spectators: we can witness but we cannot affect the action.

Key to distancing us from identification within the frame is the film’s stylistic emphasis on performative mannerisms. Van Sant credits Shakespeare with some of the dialogue, as idea for the film originally came from a take on Henry IV’s Prince Hal story—with the result being Reeves’s Scott playing Hal under the tutelage of bombastic petty criminal Bob’s coke-addled Falstaff. Repeat viewings yield the impression that scenes featuring Bob and Scott are meant to be markedly more “Shakespearean” than those in the world of Mike’s maternal search, but it’s a still a matter of trading one style of performance for another. Though it is not pure iambic pentameter issuing from the mouths of key players, it is nonetheless a highly stylized and theatrical English which aids in creating moments of theatrical tableaux every time a player begins to declaim, and there are subtle shifts in lighting and camera framing which help to create this sense of static arrest in the filmic narrative flow. When, after assuming a new role of respectability, Scott renounces Bob, the camera frames tightly on him, and the lighting becomes more artificial and less ambient, isolating the moment from the public space of the restaurant and putting Reeves in a virtual spotlight—this might well be a dramatic aside that only Bob and Scott and you, in the audience, can notice, but the other players on the stage may not be able to perceive.

It is unclear in such moments how aware the players (and I use this term emphatically instead of “characters”) are of the theatricality of their actions, or if this is pure realism in their cosmos. Tableaux are latent everywhere, even in the non-“Shakespearean” scenes, and though players within the frame do move, there is something intangibly static about these shots that seems to drain life and reality from the frame. I am thinking particularly of the depictions of sex in Idaho, whether with clients or Scott’s Italian lover. Sex is reduced to a series of poses, cut together rapidly, with little or no movement in each shot, producing a disturbingly robotic effect. The visuals of the film are rife with Americana, but it’s uncanny, with an emphasis on lapses of space and time, utterly drained of emotion, with memories reduced to samples and postcards to be collected. We’ve seen such things and places before, but the emotional affect is off-kilter from our expectations, and the pacing of the film constantly calls into question how much impact any given shot has for to the whole narrative.

It’s frustrating to try to describe Van Sant’s pacing—it has a sort of limping quality, moving unexpectedly, neither entirely slow nor entirely fast, and leaving the spectator off-balance. Idaho unspools like the sort of dream more perniciously terrifying than any monster horror fare: the kind of dream where déjà vu overwhelms all logic, players you think you should know better perform scenes you are entirely powerless to influence, and you are carried along in a slow but steady stream of repetition and uncomfortably familiar strangeness. Idaho is a nightmare burlesque of familiar American scenes for grownups. It never strays so far away from reality that one feels safe in an explanatory shell of fantasy, nor behaves predictably enough to abide by the laws of the waking world, instead hewing a path between the two that seems to cross-contaminate both worlds. This is hardly implausible for a film whose protagonist suffers from acute narcolepsy, but the spectator is never allowed the security of slippage into full identification with him—Mike, like the film, is too enigmatic to allow such a sense of understanding—and thus into a perspective that would explain this dreamlike tone of the narrative.

Could Idaho all be Mike’s dream? Perhaps, but if so, this might be the first film to utterly banish all psychoanalytic meaning from the realm of the sleeper, and instead allow the strange, involuntary, and half-remembered to reign supreme and unchallenged. Like Mike, Phoenix remains ambiguous. We will never know what his career would have been, how his public persona would have matured, and what choices he might have made in taking roles to please which constituencies of his fans. He died young and thus avoided both obscurity and growth, achieving something far rarer than either outcome in Hollywood: enigma.