“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The road is both a refuge and a prison in My Own Private Idaho, the seminal 1991 drama by director Gus Van Sant. It stretches out, vast and infinite in its scope, clouded by the memory of the cars all whizzing past, of the turns not made but longed for, and the journeys not quite finished yet well remembered.
Teetering on the edges, the street hustlers of My Own Private Idaho seem inclined at first to see the road as a form of salvation. Here, the space they claim is their own, and it’s paved with opportunity, teeming with potential Johns. They’re all just one car ride away from the next great score or disaster. But who wants the real world when you’ve tasted this kind of freedom?
But the road can also be cold. It offers no shelter from the elements: not the wind nor the night, nor the perversity of soul-sick men and woman with fat pockets and bizarro kinks, who only want to consider the hustlers as projections of their own desperate yearnings. On the road, there’s no buttress to keep all this at bay. One by one, the hustlers have learned endurance.
Yet for all its sadness, the road still beckons. Its tolls are accepted, albeit begrudgingly. It still belongs to everyone, which gives it an eternal appeal. For the broken souls captured inside the film — an assortment of prostitutes, junkies, thieves and aging con artists — the road isn’t where things truly bottom out. It’s everything that calls just outside of it that brings doubt and uncertainty. It’s off the road you need to worry about, not what lies upon it.
As a metaphor, the road embodies the crossroads where Mike Waters — a gay hustler played with aching vulnerability by River Phoenix — finds himself. Hungry to leave just about everywhere yet desperate to belong to something greater than himself, Mike is perpetually flat-footed, roving the streets with soft eyes and heavy lids. He’s a kid balancing on the edge of a razorblade, frequently immobilized by terrible narcolepsy, which seizes him without warning and has become a professional liability. More often than not when he falls, it’s the road that catches him. It’s no surprise he seems truly in his element when he’s free to roam it.
In part, My Own Private Idaho is a contemporary retelling of Henry IV, although it weaves multiple disparate strands of storyline together. While Mike longs for the road that will eventually bring him back home to his long-lost mother, Scott (Keanu Reeves) is the Prince Hal here, reimagined as a Gen-Xer with daddy issues. He takes to the road in self-imposed exile from his powerful politico father and his de-facto kingdom, and stays on the move, until at last Scott’s ready to reveal himself: the prince all along, just in disguise, and poised at last to seize hold of his rightful throne.
The film was also inspired by City of Night, a 1963 novel by John Rechy about a young man who travels on the road, working his way from city to city as a hustler and interacting with other male prostitutes who do not want to acknowledge their homosexuality.
In a 2008 interview, Van Sant said, “… In My Own Private Idaho, I was fashioning those characters after people that I had met in Portland who are street hustlers. The same things that were in the characters in John Rechy’s book [City of Night] existed within them. I wanted to expose that side. I don’t know if it came out of Mala Noche. I think it came out of the paradox of people having sex with someone of the same sex yet refusing the label that this gave them.”
For Mike and Scott, the road seems like it offers a potential escape from this. Although Mike subsequently declares his love for Scott over a campfire on the side of the road, Scott refuses his advances, which helps plunge Mike further into a spiral of despair. As Mike, Phoenix conveys all the hopelessness and creeping despair of the hustler lifestyle, yet also delivers a sharp repudiation of it: howling, stomping his feet, refusing and fighting against the viciousness of everything Mike finds he has to face.
Despite his quest — which takes him from Seattle to Portland, to Idaho then to Italy, and back again to the States — it’s hard to discern whether Mike truly finds anything at all or if he’s just sleepwalking through another bad trip. In the end, he falls into a narcoleptic fit, his body slack and stretched across some desolate track of backroad in Idaho. From above, we view the first car drive past, pausing long enough only for two men to slip out and rob him. The next one to drive by stops, and we watch as Mike’s unconscious body is pushed into the passenger seat.
In many ways, My Own Private Idaho is a restless road movie that never lingers at any destination for too long – it’s too busy barreling forward. But it’s not the destination that really matters here, no matter what fate has in store for Mike or Scott. Instead, it’s the journey, and it’s what makes all the difference.