Salon (US), April 29, 1999
Something in the way he moves
In defense of Keanu Reeves.
by Charles Taylor
Is there anyone in the movies who allows the camera to drink him in the way Keanu Reeves does? Movies have always yielded to performers with charisma and beauty. Sometimes the mechanics of a movie -- plot, dialogue -- can seem frozen for an instant as the camera basks in the person in front of it. There have been histories of the movies written in terms of genres and filmmakers. Perhaps one needs to be written in terms of erotics, the moments that break movies down in our minds into images of faces, bits of movement, a snatch of music on the soundtrack. Those moments seem to reveal other, more delicate, movies inside the one we're watching, as if we were in the midst of reading a novel and a symbolist poem had floated up between the lines.
"The Matrix" has already broken down in my head to moments of Keanu Reeves striding through crowded city streets, dank back alleys and the decaying rooms of ghost town tenements. Reeves' movements have always conveyed an unsettled mixture of eagerness and wariness (just as the combination of his muscular build and fine-boned face convey a mixture of strength and grace). Maybe it's the way he seems to be led forward by his shoulders as he walks, or the way he has of looking from side to side as he strides forward, scanning the scene he's already trudged into. If the film's protagonist, Neo, is a role that Reeves seems born to play, it's because it's the one that allows us to revel in his physicality, which has always been such a strong component of his acting.
Movement is accepted as part of the performance of a dancer or a comic. And certainly talking about the physicality of, say, Olivier as Henry V, or Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, wouldn't surprise anyone. So why does it still startle some highbrow moviegoers and critics that, in an action movie, the way an actor moves is the performance? In her Entertainment Weekly review of "The Matrix," Lisa Schwarzbaum claims she "can't get [Reeves] in focus as an actor," but as for his "fine form," well that she can "clearly see and appreciate."
I don't think that the way Keanu Reeves looks or the way he moves is all there is to appreciate about the guy. But I often get the feeling that admitting to enjoying his physicality means that I'm failing my critic's responsibility of treating cinema as a serious art form, that having a sensual or kinetic response means abandoning intellect, that I'm forgetting to maintain that even failed or boring or pretentious art is more worthy of serious consideration than successful entertainment.
Let's face it: Love him or hate him, nobody wants to envision the movies without Keanu Reeves. If it weren't for him, what would snobs do to amuse themselves?
No doubt there are people who just don't dig Keanu Reeves. But I've almost never heard anyone content to say they merely dislike him: They loathe him. Subjected to more ridicule than perhaps any other movie star, Reeves is attacked with the enthusiasm people reserve for someone who truly drives them crazy. "Young, dumb and full of cum," is the way Reeves' hard-ass FBI boss describes the character he plays in "Point Break," a line that the Keanu haters themselves might have coined. I'm guessing, but I suspect that part of the vitriol directed at Reeves stems from the way he stirs up all the old arguments about the differences between actors and movie stars. Reeves is also a repository both for the lingering resentment over the attention and devotion that beauty continues to command in pop culture and the way in which he represents a subversion of traditional sex roles
In "Girlfriend," her new book about cross-dressing, Holly Brubach argues that drag sends conventional sex roles topsy-turvy, that while maintaining traditional images of femininity it "upholds the very definitions that it subverts; it is at once radical and deeply conventional." I'd argue the same applies to Reeves. Looking at good-looking people has been one of the great pleasures of the movies since the silents. But the performers who have offered themselves most willingly to the camera have almost always been women. Their seeming passivity has disguised the position of power they hold over the viewer. Ready for worship, they have presented themselves as if they were the sacred icons of pop culture. Men, on the other hand, have traditionally acted to deflect attention from themselves, as if doing anything less would seem unmanly or feminine.
Reeves is one of the few contemporary male stars whose presence acknowledges that people are out there in the dark looking at him. He's not narcissistic, just comfortable with himself, and his slight languidness encourages looking. That willingness to be looked at evokes -- in women as well as men -- a homosexual panic. I don't mean that as a sop to the rumors that have hovered around Reeves' sexuality -- though it's significant that we can conceive of a man comfortable with his good looks only as being gay -- but as a suggestion of how some people still feel threatened by men who don't conform to their ideas of what men should be.
For someone who's been most successful as the star of action movies, Reeves hasn't shown any interest in macho bluster. He may be playing hot dogs in "Point Break" and "Speed," but he doesn't swagger, not even in the scenes with his leading ladies. Like other actors of his generation -- Eric Stoltz, James LeGros, John Cusack -- Reeves is remarkably generous, even deferential, to the women he plays opposite. Look at the scenes between him and Sandra Bullock in "Speed." Reeves doesn't play them as a testosterone-jazzed cop out to show who's in charge -- he treats her as an equal partner in disaster, encouraging, even leaning on her, without once seeming less heroic or masculine.
It's surprising then that audiences that enjoy that sort of gender switcheroo haven't embraced Reeves. Maybe it's because they're the same kind of audiences that buy into fashionable notions about beauty being a false, oppressive standard. Reeves demonstrates that movies have never abandoned their veneration of the beautiful, and he does so at a time when that impulse is deeply suspect.
A film critic I know recently said to me that he thinks people look at Reeves and see nothing going on. He said they weren't looking too hard. Instead of the "serene blankness" Schwarzbaum described, I have almost never seen Reeves play a scene -- regardless of whether he or the movie was good or bad -- where he didn't seem completely concentrated. That commitment may have sometimes worked against him, leading him to appear overly serious in a crummy movie. But I'd prefer that to an actor condescending to a scene by signaling his contempt. Or to the furious scenery chewing that is often praised in the movies as fine acting -- Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Georgia" or "Kansas City"; John Malkovich in "Jennifer Eight" or "Rounders"; Gary Oldman in almost anything.
That sort of showy self-consciousness is often mistaken for off-screen intelligence. Unfortunately, people still assume that actors are the characters they play. Reeves is often talked about as if he is the slow-witted dude he played in the "Bill and Ted" movies. It's almost always his voice and the accents that he affects that's used as evidence against him. Sure, his British accent in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" was noticeably strained, and it's often counted against him. But nobody was good in that movie. (Coppola seemed more interested in his production design than in directing the actors.) If actors are often confused with the roles they play, they are also held accountable for the follies of their directors. Which is also what happened to Reeves in "Little Buddha": Any actor would have looked ridiculous done up in eyeliner and prancing around as Siddhartha. And yet, who could blame Reeves for wanting to work with Bernardo Bertolucci, especially after being so consistently mocked as a nontalent.
Dismissed as a slacker Ken doll whose work has been mostly teen comedies and action films, Reeves has been even more ridiculed when he's attempted to stretch himself. Reeves played Hamlet in a Winnipeg, Manitoba, stage production and received good reviews, but most of the attendant press about the performance mocked the very idea of him attempting the role. As Don John in Branagh's film of "Much Ado About Nothing," Reeves took a functional, nondescript villain and gave him an undercurrent of malevolence that the movie's brightness couldn't entirely dispel. (The element of inexplicability Reeves brought to the don's treachery made me wonder whether Shakespeare might have used the part as a first sketch for Iago, a character he wrote three years later.) The reviews were predictably nasty, but it's always a giveaway when people spend more time deriding the notion of a performance -- Keanu Reeves in Shakespeare! -- than the specifics of the actual acting.
Movies are only occasionally high art. And even when they are, they need the link to their tradition of sensual pleasure that Reeves stands for. Performers with his sort of charismatic sexiness can make you feel plugged in, alive to that pleasure. In a world of movies that are too often (to steal a phrase from a Mekons song) the empire of the senseless, Reeves is the red pill.