What do you remember when you think of the first person you loved? When you miss that person, the way you miss your home, what do you miss the most?
My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant, isn’t about love; it’s about losing in love. A cornerstone of New Queer Cinema, it’s the film where the late River Phoenix gave a lasting legendary performance — he’s remarkable in his vulnerability, so open and raw it feels like you could hurt him just by looking.
Phoenix stars as Mike Waters, a young sex worker from Idaho, sleeping rough in Portland. He’s a narcoleptic who careens into a fitful sleep when stressed, or when reminded of his mother. Keanu Reeves costars as Scott Favor, also a young homeless sex worker in Portland, but also the mayor’s runaway son. On his twenty-first birthday, he expects to receive his inheritance, and until then he spends his days hustling and taking care of Mike, who is in love with him.
Before My Own Private Idaho, Reeves was known for his comedic work in Bill and Ted. Two months before the release of Idaho, Point Break was released, where he played a federal agent bursting at the seams with bravado. Here, he is the prep school student gone astray, bewildering in his beauty and reticence. The audience sees the world filtered through Mike’s point of view: 16mm childhood memories and a 35mm present spliced up by stretches of unconsciousness, Scott hovering nearby. In a film constructed with dizzying montages, Scott seems to be the one constant — until he isn’t. My Own Private Idaho is preoccupied with the ephemeral. The film is filled with shots of wispy clouds passing by overhead, and of a wooden house, long abandoned. Scott, and his relationship with Mike, are transient.
The first time watching the movie, you fall in love with Scott. The second, third, and fourth, seeing Reeves on screen is like looking at an old photograph of someone you don’t speak to anymore. If Reeves had played the role a touch crueler or less repressed, Mike’s yearning for his best friend might not be so gut-wrenching. Reeves is the perfect scene partner for Phoenix; Phoenix mutters his way through his lines, sounding as tattered and frayed as he looks. Reeves is all spread legs and swagger, speaking in proper diction. The energy between the two of them is striking. With just his eyes, Reeves conveys love, disdain, and humor. Reeves’ agility with dialogue is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Phoenix may get the film’s most iconic lines, but Reeves is the one who delivers monologues in Van Sant’s hybrid Shakespearean. Scott’s narrative is based partly on Henriad, Scott filling the role of Prince Hal, the king’s wayward son. Reeves delivers the pseudo-Shakespearean lines beautifully. But with Mike, Scott speaks plainly, as if a facade is slipping away. He relates to Mike differently than he relates to others — outside of his vision of himself as a displaced prince. Reeves switches back and forth between scripted iambic pentameter and improvisation, relying on chemistry with Phoenix and his understanding of the characters. It makes the on-screen rapport that much more captivating.
In a restaurant, Mike mumbles to himself, wondering how much money Scott made off of his sleeping body. “You think I sell your body while you’re asleep?” Scott responds, stiffening in his seat and stirring his drink, the movement tight with anger. Reeves excels in communicating thoughts with small gestures. He glares into his mug. “No, Mike. I’m on your side.” It’s true: Scott lies and protects Mike when he steals cocaine. Scott travels with him in search of his mother. We see intimacy — how Scott holds Mike, how he lets Mike press his face into the side of his neck to cry. They are even posed in a Pietà together, Mike draped across Scott’s lap, cradled in his arms.
In the film’s most famous scene, Mike confesses his love to Scott by a campfire off a road in Idaho. Phoenix rewrote the scene as a love confession, and he and Reeves ad-libbed the dialogue. The agony comes not just in Mike’s confession but in Scott’s reaction. Reeves plays it relaxed at first, lounging against a log by the fire while Phoenix curls further and further into himself until he is fetal. When Scott realizes what Mike is trying to say, his eyes widen, he shifts, and he sighs, flustered. “I only have sex with a guy for money,” he says. Mike replies that he knows, but Scott presses on, voice soft, “and two guys can’t love each other.”
The silence is so delicate that the crackle of the campfire is timid. Unable to look at Scott, who is staring at him, Mike mumbles “I mean, for me, I could love someone even if they didn’t pay me. I love you, and you don’t pay me.” There’s nothing Scott can say. Mike wants to kiss him, but Scott can’t kiss him. Instead, he pats the space next to him, beckons Mike closer, and holds him, brushing his hand through Mike’s hair. It’s a gesture so tender and loving that it’s equal parts comforting and eviscerating.
Duality is at the core of Scott’s character, and Reeves’ performance. Scott is warm but stoic. Cunning, and tender-hearted. He loves and doesn’t love. This can be read as duplicitous, but Reeves doesn’t play the character as deceptive. Despite his theatrics, Scott is guarded. His one real moment of vulnerability, when he says he hates his father and his upbringing, is a monologue delivered to a sleeping Mike. “My dad doesn’t know that I’m just a kid,” he says while Mike snores. He places his coat over Mike’s sleeping body and leaves. When Mike wakes in the morning, he wears Scott’s coat.
Reeves understands that Scott is not meant to be known; Scott is meant to be loved, to be longed for. His small kindnesses, the warmth of his eyes, the flustered laughter — are things to be remembered of temporary love.
Scott falls for Carmella (Chiara Caselli), an Italian farm girl they meet while searching for Mike’s mother. It’s up for interpretation whether this love is genuine or a decision Scott makes to regain access to the comfort and wealth he was raised in. His love scene with Carmella mirrors another sex scene in the film with a client named Hans. Filmed in brief shots, Reeves poses with his scene partner, mimicking still photography. The final shot of the scene with Carmella shows them embracing in bed, Carmella fast asleep. Scott, perfectly still, stares off into nothing for a moment before shutting his eyes.
He leaves Italy, taking Carmella with him. The next time Mike sees him, he’s wealthy, married, and doesn’t spare him a glance. The last time the viewer sees him, he is at his father’s burial, staring at the rowdy funeral being held across the cemetery for Bob Pigeon (William Richert), king of the hustlers, who Scott had described as his real father. Reeves’ expression is unyielding and closed off.
Then, Mike wakes up in Idaho. Scott’s memory becomes a relic, like the blood-stained postcard that Mike takes to the hotel in Snake River while looking for his mother. He haunts the final scene of the film the same way Mike’s mother haunts the rest of it. Mike walks along the same road in Idaho, and we remember the gossamer silence by the campfire — and the way Scott looked at him.