Tuesday, 10 May 2011

'It's not where you go. It's how you get there.'

Such is the tagline of Gus Van Sant's 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The storyline is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV: a young man (Reeves) forsakes the privilege and pomp of his wealthy family to run wild on the streets under the tutelage of the charismatic but corrupt drunkard Bob Pigeon. Reeves' character, Scott, knows that his time amongst the raucous group of street dwellers is only temporary, as once he comes of age he will make the transformation from self confessed 'fuck up' to suave businessman to earn his father's respect and love. River Phoenix is a friend and fellow hustler on the street who ropes Reeves into a road trip of self discovery and adventure on a mission to find his mother.

I must admit that watching this old (ish) film I was prejudiced by my conception of what is a stereotypical 'road-trip' film. You know the type: mindless humour, gratuitous nudity and awkward sexual experiences. With possibly the exception of Thelma and Louise, which in my opinion is a poignant and sentimental portrayal of female friendship, most road-trip films are male centred but only shown from the take of the journey being about 'bromance'.

My own private Idaho is completely different. The relationship between Scott and Mike is shown with such beautiful realism. It's touching and sentimental but not over-done. It's not idealised and there's no 'happy ending' as far as the friendship goes but you know that there was, for a time, genuine feelings of camaraderie and (on different levels) love between the two men. 

Keanu Reeves may not have honed his skills as a multi-dimensional actor- he is just as monotone as Neo in the Matrix- but it sort of works in this context. He is a young man on the brink of adulthood-conflicted but also remarkably self assured. His slow development is quite sweet. River Phoenix is spectacular as a love-torn, emotionally fragile, innocent yet socially astute young man. His facial expressions, body language and tone of voice is so subtle and gentle that over the course of the film you see how much of a total, fully-psychologized character Phoenix has created. This man is having such a range of sexual and social experiences which he believes he has control over but he is so obviously damaged and affected by the loss of his mother. He is haunted by this idea of himself as a young child with his mother outside the family home. The pastel hued, hazy flashbacks which spring in a sporadic manner through the narrative whenever Mike feels threatened, are rose-tinted reminders of the domesticity and stable relationship which Mike lacks and so obviously craves. Although he has become part of this dysfunctional sort of family of hustlers, thieves and drug-addicts he yearns for something more enduring which he believes he may recapture upon finding his mother, or perhaps with Scott. Yet upon the double disappointment of Scott's italian romance and the realisation of his mother's eternal absence from his life he becomes more settled than he ever has been. The double funeral of 'fathers' at the climax of the film makes you question the disparity between the family you are born with and the family you choose for yourself. Which is more real? Which more understanding? Which more capable of supporting and loving you?

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