My Own Private Idaho tells the story of two street hustlers who go on a journey of personal exploration that leads them apart. I found the film somewhat interesting with some good scenes, but I was not overly impressed by many of Gus Van Sant's directorial flairs.
River Phoenix is best known for dying prematurely after appearing in several films. He never attained a James Dean iconic status but he definitely has his own cult following of sorts. Phoenix appeared in a few more films after this one but this is generally considered his best work. Of course Phoenix is not the only lead in the film and shares the story with Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor. Favor's story is molded after Henry IV as he is drifter who lives an aimless life but after the death of his father assumes his place and becomes a respectable sort. The reason I mention Reeves is because the central relationship between the two is a central part of the film although that is unfortunately part of the problem with the film.
Keanu Reeves unfortunately only gives a performance that is considerably better than his performance in Dracula. The problem with that is that means he still is very wooden here. His Scott Favor feels almost a non presence, and he and Phoenix do not share a chemistry to make their relationship anything even remotely special. There is no heartbreak when they grow apart because there is not any reason why it seems they should be even together. He and Phoenix do not create any connection, and Reeves fails miserably to make Favor's transformation at the end seem like anything at all since he is just as bland as he was before. There is nothing about his performance to establish the central relationship the film needs.
Of course I will lay the blame almost entirely on Keanu Reeves as Reeves makes far far less out of his individual scenes than what Phoenix does. Phoenix goes about portraying Mike in not all that different of a manner to the way that he portrayed Danny in Running on Empty. He is very quiet in this performance playing Mike as shy and retiring which certainly fits his character who suffers from fits of Narcolepsy which keeps him at a bit of a distance from everyone. Phoenix deserves a lot of credit for not overplaying Mike's problem as whenever he plays it quickly without ceremony in a believable and thankfully non theatrical style. He handles this very well, and goes about showing that this is always weighing on Mike keeps him in a troubled state.
This is a film that spends a lot of time with many characters. Reeves and Phoenix are the leads but they do play second fiddle rather often to Van Sant's direction where he just uses the actors as entirely pawns in many scenes. None of the actors in film get to do a whole lot to really bring their characters forward in these scenes and are purely there to be worked into the editing and visual styles employed. This made it so Phoenix's performance is limited in a certain way as these types of scenes are brought in throughout the picture and the arc of the two characters often feels secondary to whatever Van Sant feels like doing. This leaves Phoenix with little time to really make much of Mike as a character.
I guess I should stop being so negative because I did like this performance as it went along, although much like the film I thought there were powerful scenes that weren't all that well strung together. There is a great deal of power that Phoenix brings out in portraying Mike's painful struggle with himself just in individual moments such as when he goes to see his mother who is not there, or when he confronted by his mother. He has strong individual moments in his portrayal of Danny as a drifter who cannot be anything but and realizes this personality quite effectively which keeps him a certain distance throughout the film.
River Phoenix is entirely consistent throughout the film, and I would say he is the best part of the film. My biggest problem really with his performance is the way it is used in the film, which never quite allows Phoenix to reach his full potential. He some very moving moments here and there, but his overall affect of his performance just does not have the impact perhaps it could have had. Van Sant's over indulgent direction as well as Keanu Reeves inability to fulfill his role prevents Phoenix from creating the compelling central relationship that one would think would be in the film. This simply never quite feels as good of a performance as it perhaps could have been if it had been better utilized within the film.