Gus Van Sant makes his own private movies. Though they are typically set in the scrubby demimonde of boy street hustlers and petty criminals, the writer-director couldn't be called defiant. He's no outlaw, like the late, great, crazed Sam Peckinpah, who rubbed our noses in it; and he's no sexual provocateur, like that impresario of the deeply depraved, David Lynch.
In fact, what courses through Van Sant's work in such abundance is a sense of normalcy. Van Sant isn't slumming, isn't consciously walking on the wild side, doesn't pine to force us complacent bourgeois dullards to confront the seething, scabrous underbelly of life. He doesn't know it's the underbelly or the tenderloin: To him, it's as regular as burgers on the grill.
Thus his new "My Own Private Idaho," at the Rotunda, is cracked and beautiful, stranger than strange, yet in some assuring way so pulsing with life that it embraces you as warmly as "Father Knows Best." It's a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit. Put another way, the tension in the film is held in the strain between the naturalism of milieu and the theatricality of concept.
At least a half of it is derived from "Henry IV (Part I)," and it watches a young Prince Hal tumble among the low lives, sucking life from a gigantic Falstaffian rogue, yet secretly preparing himself for the hardness that will be necessary when he inherits the throne.
As Van Sant works this out, Prince Hal is Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), son of the mayor of Portland, Ore., and heir to that political dynasty. He has taken to sporting with the street boys and his mentor is the theatrically self-dramatizing Bob (William Richert), with a British accent, a cape and even what appears to be an Elizabethan codpiece.
Van Sant has great fun with the Shakespearean rag: He gives us gaudy re-enactments of the robbery at Gadshill and Hal's heartbreaking rejection of fat Jack at his own coronation. At times, he even crunches the two argots together, the high-sounding Elizabethan fancies of the original Shakespeare and the meaner rhythms of Portland's hustler culture.
Yet at the same time, Van Sant is exploring the tender, twisted relationship between Scott and a far more vulnerable street waif named Mike, who is in love with Scott. Mike (River Phoenix) is one of life's little yo-yos, the mangled, incoherent result of a mangled, incoherent upbringing in Idaho. Angelic and delicate and largely mono-syllabic, Mike is always cold (Van Sant vividly captures the climactic rigors of hustling in a chilly environment), a shivering, shuddering adolescent, always pulling his threadbare coat around him to ward off the nip in the air. Mike is also narcoleptic, the truest expression of his helplessness. At key moments, he's apt to collapse into a twitchy dream state. He's like a little animal whose only defensive maneuver is to lie on his back and show his belly and tremble for mercy.
Here's the rub: Neither boy is truly homosexual. Scott's is purely an existential enterprise, a way of testing himself at the furthest limits of degradation and enraging his father. Mike is just a bunny, looking for warmth and shelter. But he falls in love with Scott, who cannot truly love him back.
This drama plays out on the road, scattered by the movie's ramshackle plot, which throws the boys from the Portland street to a highway in Idaho (where they've gone in search of Mike's mother), and finally to Italy, where Mike again seeks his mother but where Scott finds his princess -- devastating Mike in the process.
Van Sant finds the humanity in each of these characters, and also the humor -- a few of the professional sexual encounters the boys partake in are as bizarre and hilarious as anything in Lynch's work. But Van Sant isn't shocking us: He's trying to make us care.
'My Own Private Idaho'
Starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
Directed by Gus Van Sant.