In Which Keanu Reeves Breaks Our Head Open Like A Melon
Once ... Twice … Three Times Keanu
by Ben Arfmann
Preface: I love Keanu Reeves. His cool professionalism, and his compulsive drive to always work (often four films a year) are incredibly easy to admire; the man projects the barest of egos. The two films that made his name, Speed and The Matrix, give him a bad rap. They were the two most providential accidents of casting of the 1990s. In both cases, the filmmakers ended up getting not who they wanted (not by a long shot) but who they needed. Keanu Reeves made both films (amazing concepts, catchy scripts, potential bombs) work.
But he didn’t do it by acting – you can’t call the robotic professionalism of either film acting - he did it by getting out of the way of the material, nailing the required acrobatics, and allowing the film to speak while he was silent.
Keanu Reeves made those movies great, just by getting the work done and keeping his head down. Let’s acknowledge his achievements in those two films without labeling them something they’re not. But even granting him those two mulligans, Keanu Reeves is still a good actor. One of the greats. Let’s talk about three films that prove it. Three characters that he himself dredged up from the creative deep and made into walking, talking pleasures for movie maniacs everywhere. Three times Keanu. Marlon in I Love You to Death.
The funniest fifteen minutes of Keanu’s career. In Bill & Ted, Ted was funny because of the material – the slacker joker persona was buoyed up by a kitchen-sink concept – but Marlon is funny (really funny) just by his nature, which is all Keanu. Paired with the reliably creepy-suave William Hurt, Keanu digs into his chronic lack of expression (the muscle-relaxant face; the line readings telegraphed from Neptune) and makes it work by turning impassivity into a shtick and not a crutch. He was young as hell when he shot this, which probably helped (he was still ashamed of his workaholic tendencies, trying to mask them with a “dude’s dude” persona), as did the presence of River Phoenix on set (all of Keanu’s later day mysticism seems channeled from Phoenix’s effortless embodiment of Youth-and-Good-Times)
He’s light and flow-y, hitting every beat required by the movie (proving his actor’s awareness) while presenting a fully cogent front of molasses-minded idiocy. The film, as a whole, is cute and keeps your mind from wandering (especially when Phoenix is on screen), but when Keanu and Hurt are in Kevin Kline’s bedroom, admiring a Reggie Jackson bat instead of completing the hit they have been hired for, it’s captivating – you hold your breath so you don’t obscure the jokes with guffaws. The next time you hear someone making a “Whoa. I know Kung Fu” crack, cut them off mid-meme and tell them about this movie.
Donnie Barksdale in The Gift. Sam Raimi is a cinema savant. That’s not what I think, it’s what I know. If you disagree, so-be-it, but at least now you know where this Keanu Recommendation is coming from. He plays a backwater wifebeater in this one, married to Hillary Swank, and threatens the lives of Cate Blanchett and her kids. One caveat with this performance is the unavoidable nature of the whodunit genre: the first time you see it, Keanu will be scary as hell. The second time it’ll be Keanu Reeves with long hair and a little extra turkey waddle under his guff. That said, this is the best trick casting of 2000 (a testament, once again, to Mr. Raimi’s enduring genius). Keanu channels both Gary Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald and Rodney Dangerfield’s Ed Wilson (in Natural Born Killers) in this one, creating a character who is sickening exactly because his violence towards women is so mundane. Keanu leers and staggers not with the traditional red-herring menace of the crime drama genre (as though evil were a pleasure he consumed with his morning coffee), but with a very recognizable, very common masculine entitlement complex run amuck. He might remind you of a few fathers and co-workers you know, the ones who reveal, when drunk enough, that they believe all women should have signs reading “whore” in large red typeface dangling from around their shoulders. He’s chilling in this one, and you’ll welcome any punishment that comes his way.
Dr. Perry Lyman in Thumbsucker. This film is dense and attentive, which are usually strong qualities in small pictures, but it’s also a little too proud of its own wisdom for tolerance. Most scenes have some kind of “point” happening just behind the curtain, and didacticism that strong just begs to have the creators’ game turned back on them: “what, exactly, is up with your obsession with sermonizing, director Mike Mills?” But perhaps because the movie is both dense and less-than-amazing, Keanu shakes off the dead scales and dust from around his shoulders and turns out his most relaxed, least mannered performance in years. Low pressure situations do wonders for some people. I haven’t seen him this willing to be slovenly, unfocused and charming since Bogus Journey (his greatest fear, he once said, was that his tombstone would read “he played Ted”; sort of explains all his uptight Christ figure roles). Here he’s a dentist who tries to dispense psychiatric advice along with fillings. The advice is so misguided and his own emotional health so questionable that his role as mentor and spirit guide is impossible to take seriously. Keanu circles around the edges of the set, daring the director and the cameraman to call him back into frame, all while slumping, leaning, and hunching like most 41-year-old men – worn and demoralized by the length and torpor of their lives – do.
He’s a pathetic figure in this one, but he knows it, and he’s trying to change; Reeves takes his own professional drive (always working always working) and transmutes it into his character’s desire to just “get a little more sane, just a little more.” The modest ambition is immensely likable. You want to give him a hug, and when he finally smiles with genuine concern at the film’s protagonist, it produces the single most cathartic and authentic display of affection in an otherwise chilly film. Those are, to my apologist’s eyes, three of the best film performances since the start of Blockbuster Era Hollywood.
Scott in My Own Private Idaho: River makes the movie great, but only because Keanu is able to convincingly break his heart. The final scene is a good bet, but real money plays on the farm house sequence: Keanu perfectly pulls off the deluded love monkey look of a guy stuck in the middle of a sex triangle and loving it.
Johnny Utah in Point Break: The crazy, vigorous prototype for “Jack” in Speed. Director Kathryn Bigelow scooped Reeves up a couple years shy of his thirtieth birthday and managed to get one truly sexy performance out of the young stoner actor before it was too late, and the buddy buddy scenes with Gary Busey should make every comedy cop pair put on screen since 1991 hang their bifurcated head with shame.