“I just know that I’ve been here before, I just know I’ve been stuck here”. Mike Waters (River Phoenix) stands on his own in the middle of an empty road against an empty, desolate landscape. Looking up and down the road, he recognizes that he cannot escape. “There’s not another road that looks exactly like this road…It’s one kind of place, one of a kind, like someone’s face, like a f—-ed up face.”
My Own Private Idaho (1991) begins with a significant establishment of two important relationships that set the foundation of the cyclical nature of its narrative. First, the relationship between Mike and this unique road is acknowledged, as we learn throughout the film, as a relationship that is the only consistent and reliable one of its kind for Mike. Second, we meet Mike in a vulnerable state. Mike experiences a narcoleptic attack, isolated and alone in the middle of this particular road, triggering us to feel innately protective over him like a mother would.
Shortly after this, however, this maternal identification with him is shattered when we are brought into the intimacy of a close-up on Mike’s face as he receives oral sex from a date. As he finishes, we are met with a visual destruction of this maternal gaze by way of an old barn crashing into the desert sand. It is a bad omen to signify the missing nature of home and unconditional love for Mike, setting up the quest that is to be conquered in the plot of this film.
Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is Mike’s best friend of almost 4 years since meeting on the streets. He is handsome and charming, a confident hustler, and selected favorite to Bob Pigeon (William Richert), the middle-aged street mentor to their gang. The missing son of the city’s mayor, Scott is planning to get off the streets and return home on his 21st birthday when he is due to receive a hefty financial inheritance from his father. Scott is portrayed as a more self-interested type. He’s a little arrogant and doesn’t really seem to care too much about anyone other than himself, except for Mike.
Unlike Scott, Mike is more introverted and shy. When asked if he made it to a recent Sinéad O’Connor concert, Mike expresses that he’s never been to a concert before. Born in rural America out of incest to a mother who abandoned him and to a father who he knew as his brother, Mike never had a “good upbringing.” A stranger to love and stability, Mike found refuge in Scott as his one true companion and reliable counterpart. They confide in each other and scheme on pranks to pull on Bob. Despite Scott’s lofty attitude in comparison to others, Scott takes some measures of protection and care towards Mike’s well-being within limits. As a narcoleptic, Mike often passes out in the streets and Scott is there to make sure he’s safe before leaving him to figure out how to get home on his own.
The crux of the plot in My Own Private Idaho lies within the storyline of Mike tracking down his mother in a personal search for a piece of home. Shots of salmon struggling to swim upstream are interlaced through the film directly correlating Mike’s own journey back to the location of his birth. Scott joins Mike on this journey for no reason that is explicitly stated, rather we assume, based on their relationship and based on our identification with Mike, that he joins him out of support for his friend.
In the most climactic scene in Mike’s journey, the two sit around a fire in the middle of the desert off the highway. For the first time, the contrast between the two boys can’t be made any more clear. Lit by the fire, the lights and darks emphasize the disparities that lie between Scott and Mike. Running away from home to the streets was a choice for Scott. He casually tells Mike about when he left home and the maid asked him where he was off to, to which he told her “wherever, whatever, have a nice day.” Mike hears this and compares this to his own life, a consequence he has succumbed to and not an act of conscious rebellion. For the first time, we watch him open up to Scott candidly. He tells him that he didn’t have a dog or a dad, but that “it’s alright” and that he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Recognizing his own “abnormal upbringing” in contrast to Scott’s comfortable childhood, Mike identifies the critical incompatibilities between them. He understands that they can’t be anything beyond “good friends” on Scott’s terms, despite Mike’s love for him. While “love”, or the implied expression of love, i.e. sex, is taught to Mike as something that is transactional in nature as a hustler, the love he feels for Scott is not. He tells him “I can love someone even if I wasn’t paid for it, I love you and you don’t pay me.” Mike is able to identify the difference between unconditional and conditional love, a difference that Scott appears to clearly take for granted because he finds himself in a position of privilege where he is able to do so.
Upon the pair’s return from their failed search for Mike’s mother in Rome, Mike returns to the cold Portland streets after being abandoned by Scott who left him for an Italian girl who can barely speak any English. Well after Scott’s long-awaited 21st birthday, the gang watches Scott as he enters a fancy restaurant dressed in a luxury suit, his European arm candy hanging off his body. They sit there washed up from the gutter, used, pitied, and spat on by the city’s upper echelon society that Scott now finds himself among.
The end of My Own Private Idaho brings us back to the road where we began with Mike. Unlike Scott, Mike still resides in the only society he knows. In his final line, we are reminded of the cycle he finds himself in, consistently abandoned by all but the road he finds himself drawn back to. Surrounded by the immensely vast North-West American landscape, this road exposes the empty temporal space that we fill with our own sense of loneliness, feelings of abandonment, and the void of unrequited love.
“This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world…”