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The visuals of the film are rife with Americana, but it’s uncanny, with an emphasis on lapses of space and time, utterly drained of emotion, with memories reduced to samples and postcards to be collected.
We’ve seen such things and places before, but the emotional affect is off-kilter from our expectations, and the pacing of the film constantly calls into question how much impact any given shot has for to the whole narrative.
Van Sant credits Shakespeare with some of the dialogue, as idea for the film originally came from a take on ’s Prince Hal story—with the result being Reeves’s Scott playing Hal under the tutelage of bombastic petty criminal Bob’s coke-addled Falstaff.
Repeat viewings yield the impression that scenes featuring Bob and Scott are meant to be markedly more “Shakespearean” than those in the world of Mike’s maternal search, but it’s a still a matter of trading one style of performance for another.
Mishandled this blankness often veers comically towards Reeves seeming drugged or slow, but Van Sant makes use of it to terrifying effect in .
Scott is an empty canvas, a surface on which he imposes different identities at whim.
Save for the film’s viewers, the two are emphatically alone together at last.
It is of great importance here that Mike never makes eye contact with Scott, nor with the fourth wall, but simply says what he has to say without considering a wider audience.
Given Phoenix’s famed working of the dialogue and delivery, it is curious to speculate how much of Reeves “went into” his reaction.
Even beyond this, both Reeves and Phoenix were persistently rumored to be gay or bisexual themselves (in fact, a tall tale echoes to this day that Reeves and David Geffen were secretly wed in Europe years ago! Playing a queer character was not an acknowledgement of one’s own queerness, but it was certainly not a denial either, and neatly left open the maximum number of possibilities for their fans to interpret their images.
Like James Dean, who was a gay fan icon in the 1950s, and persistently rumored to be gay himself, Phoenix had an image of boyish vulnerability under a tough façade, making him popular with both men and straight women.
Scott can be a debauched street hustler or the privileged son of the mayor and a pillar of society, but it isn’t because of a multiplicity of self and contradictory depth within him.
Scott is in this seemingly sideways manner, because this perspective on images and performances offered me the first glimmer of hope for any real penetration through the surfaces of the film, which is impressively aggressive in keeping the spectator at a distance.
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Yet if one stops to think about Reeves and Phoenix’s careers to that date, “versatile” might not be the first choice of adjective to apply.