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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » My Own Private Idaho (Blu-ray)
My Own Private Idaho (Blu-ray)
Criterion // R // October 6, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matt Hinrichs | posted October 21, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Gus Van Sant's shimmering drama My Own Private Idaho is one of those films whose stature has grown over the years. Upon its original release, the audiences and critics of 1991 seemed blindsided by the novelty of two up-and-coming actors, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, playing gay hustlers. With 24 years' hindsight, we can see what a landmark the film actually is - like Twin Peaks or The Simpsons (seen briefly in the movie!), what appeared quaint and eccentric back then now comes across as a bellwether for a greater acceptance of "different" sensibilities in our culture. Criterion's excellent Blu-ray edition gives the movie the polish it deserves.

My Own Private Idaho is like Gus Van Sant's cinematic playground - contrasting gritty reality with dreamlike, hallucinatory images, having the actors directly address the camera, even doing a long sequence directly lifted from Shakespeare. At its core, however, the movie is about the two lead characters - scruffy, childlike Mike (Phoenix) and jaded Scott (Reeves) - and how their lives intersected at a point when they needed each other the most. In a still-astonishing performance, Phoenix plays Mike as a troubled soul who is chasing after a long-ago, disappearing memory. Now plying his body on the streets of Portland, Oregon, Mike yearns to get back with his mother, who abandoned him back in Idaho when the boy could barely walk. With narcolepsy causing him to have random, seizure-like blackouts, Mike depends upon others for help. Mike's determination to find his mother, clouded in memories that grow dimmer with the passage of time, gives the film an urgency and poignance.

While the hustlers, druggies, and prostitutes of the city have each others' backs - presided over by a bombastic yet caring leader, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) - Mike comes to have a special bond with Scott Favor (Reeves), a jaundiced rich kid trying out the hustling trade for kicks. As the son of Portland's mayor, Scott has the connections and wealth to help Mike track down his mother's whereabouts. The two travel by motorcycle to Idaho, where they locate Mike's much older brother, Richard (James Waters). His vague tip leads them to a hotel in Boise, where they happen to run into a former client, German salesman/performer Hans (Udo Kier). Their journey eventually leads to a farm in the European countryside, where Scott falls for an Italian girl, Carmella (Chiara Casselli), and leaves Mike stranded with enough money to return to the states. Think that's tough? Just wait until Mike gets back to Portland.

Van Sant uses something of a grab-bag approach with My Own Private Idaho, resulting in a film that still carries its equal share of haters and devotees. The strength of the central Mike/Scott story and Phoenix's poignant performance make it a personal favorite, however. The more often I see it, the more of an audacious statement it becomes. I still enjoy it for Van Sant's takes on American mythology, gay/straight identity, and class distinction. The only glaring flaw that still stands out is the lengthy sequence between Scott and Bob Pigeon, in the midst of planning a robbery with Bob's colorful band of ruffian youths. This was the part memorably played as a straightforward recitation of the play Henry IV, with William Shakespeare's flowery dialogue kept intact. Because it depended so heavily on Reeves' flat acting, it deservedly received the most criticism in 1991. I'd say it holds up better than most people suspect, although all of the Bob scenes carry less impact that Van Sant intended. While actor William Richert does a good job, the idea that these outcasts formed a tighter community than the "straight" world ultimately gets better conveyed in the Chinese restaurant scenes with the young actors casually chatting about their ambitions and what they have to put up with. Despite all that, this one remains a personal favorite within Van Sant's strong filmography.


Note: images are from promotional sources and do not reflect the quality of the Blu Ray under review.

The Blu-ray:


Criterion's Blu-ray edition of My Own Private Idaho comes packaged as a half-inch-wide, fold-out digipack. The digipack holds a single disc and a substantial 64-page booklet. A nice, matte-finish paperboard sleeve holds it together. Given that Criterion has been cutting back on the packaging side, it's an unexpectedly handsome-looking presentation.

Video

A beautiful, newly restored 4K digital transfer overseen by Van Sant and director of photography Eric Alan Edwards highlights this particular edition of My Own Private Idaho. The 1.85:1 OAR image recreates the original theatrical experience, with just enough added color saturation and detail to make it a significant upgrade over the 2005 DVD. Despite being a modest-budget indie film, Idaho sports some gorgeous photography. This transfer preserves the character of the 35mm source material (the inherent flaw in that iconic shot of a huge barn dropping from the sky is still there), while opening it up and illuminating facets that weren't obvious before. It's a fantastic looking disc.

Audio

This release includes the film's original 2.0 DTS Master Audio Surround mix retained from the DVD, along with a newly mastered 5.1 Surround mix. The spacious, pristine-sounding mix matches the panoramic visuals. It's a fairly straightforward track with unblemished dialogue kept front-and-center, while music and sound effects are generously used to add atmosphere around the side channels.

Extras

Criterion has included plenty of extras with My Own Private Idaho, much of them retained from their 2005 DVD edition.

  • Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes (53:16) Accompanied by stills and clips from the film, Todd Haynes (Safe) talks with fellow director Van Sant on his recollections of the production.
  • The Making of My Own Private Idaho (42:23) Key crew members share their memories of the production. Van Sant and Reeves weren't available for this 2005 piece.
  • Kings of the Road (44:16). In this 2005 piece, film scholar Paul Arthur discusses the Van Sant's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV and Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight for the script.
  • Laurie Parker and Rain Phoenix (44:16) Producer Laurie Parker discusses the film with River Phoenix's sister, Rain.
  • Six Deleted Scenes, some missing parts of the image and/or audio, total about 13 minutes.
  • JT Leroy and Jonathan Caouette (55:54), an audio-only discussion between Laura Albert, adopting the persona of imaginary writer JT Leroy, and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation).
  • The package's perfect-bound, 64-page Booklet includes an essay by critic Amy Taubin, a fake-interview with author JT Lery (Laura Albert), a 1991 essay from author/gay activist Lance Loud, and two 1991 Interview magazine conversations with Van Sant conducted by Phoenix, and with Phoenix and Reeves conducted by Gini Sykes and Paige Powell.

Final Thoughts

"I really wanna kiss you, man." An eccentric document of '90s Queer Cinema, Criterion's updated Blu-ray edition of Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho earns the honor of our highest DVD Talk Collectors Series rating. A flawless picture and copious extras (mostly ported over from the 2005 DVD) make a powerful case for the durability of this ever-provocative film.


Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.

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