I don’t know that a filmmaker as unpredictable as Gus Van Sant has a signature “Gus Van Sant film.” How does one compare the Academy Award-winning feel-good hit Good Will Hunting with the existential downer Gerry (well, they both feature Matt Damon and an Affleck brother)? How do you square a shot-for-shot Psycho remake with something as original as his debut Mala Noche? How different can two biopics be, as Van Sant directed Milk—a Sean Penn-led prestige picture with an all-star cast—and the grungy, lo-fi pseudo-Kurt Cobain flick Last Days?
If Van Sant does have a film that somehow captures the essence of his work, then My Own Private Idaho exhibits many of those qualities. It’s a patchwork of high art and underground pop culture influences (from Shakespeare to Paul Morrissey), a marriage of experimental style and star power, a subversion of genre, and a matter-of-fact, non-sensationalist example of New Queer Cinema. The film also arguably crystallized Van Sant’s fascination with, and exploration of, masculinity in crisis—particularly dazed young men facing an uncertain, often uncaring world.
Van Sant’s “Lost Boys” are one of modern cinema’s most intriguing and ongoing, if sporadic, projects. And through the tragic beauty and talent of River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho presents a figurehead for Van Sant’s Lost Boys.