TIFF: Keanu Reeves grapples with the absurd in Henry's Crime
by Katherine Monk
TORONTO — Keanu Reeves bristles visibly at the word “celebrity” — and for good reason. The word is shiny but empty: a signifier of all things we celebrate on the very surface of reality without plumbing the depths of experience.
For an actor, there could hardly be a bigger insult, because performance without depth is meaningless — unless, of course, you’re making a movie about a man who’s stuck somewhere between thinking and not thinking, feeling and not feeling, being and not being.
Such is the role Reeves plays in his latest film, Henry’s Crime, which recently had its world premiere here at the Toronto International Film Festival. A comic heist movie with absurdist tendencies, Henry’s Crime features Reeves in the role of Henry, a tollbooth attendant living a rather Kafkaesque existence in Buffalo.
At the top of the reel, Henry is asked to participate in a softball game. When he looks at the snow outside, remarking that it’s November, he still refuses to see how he’s being played for a Patsy — and ends up driving a car to a bank robbery.
Henry is numb, but after his stint in the slammer, he emerges a different man and decides to rob the bank again, only this time, for real.
Reeves is clearly looking to switch things up a little since recording box-office records on The Matrix trilogy, and Henry’s Crime is just the latest waypoint in the actor’s continuing adventure. Reeves not only stars in the movie, he also had a significant role in bringing it to the screen as its producer.
“Every film needs a champion, and on this one, I was certainly one of the ones who tried to get this film made,” says Reeves, sitting down in the middle of a hotel bar humming with heavyweight talent.
“I really liked this script. That’s why I wanted to see it made, because I liked the idea of a guy who is neither asleep nor awake. Henry is kind of removed from the whole experience of being alive until he goes to jail,” he says.
Henry essentially goes to prison to escape the jail sentence of his married life, but when he gets out, everything changes. He meets an old con man (James Caan) and an aspiring actress (Vera Farmiga), and enlists their help in his plot to rob the bank via an old tunnel built by bootleggers.
“The plot is preposterous,” says Reeves as he describes the essential narrative. “I mean, there’s a prohibition tunnel! And the only way you can get into the tunnel is if you play Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard?! That is preposterous. But that’s what I loved about it. I thought that was awesome.”
Reeves says he was so taken with the craziness of it, he helped Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) work on the script and hone the content until Malcolm Venville stepped in to direct Reeves and co-stars Vera Farmiga and James Caan.
Reeves says he was drawn to Venville, a relatively unknown English director, because he spoke a lot about passion in their first meeting.
“(Venville) kept describing the script as emotional. I was drawn to that, and so I spent a couple of weeks working on the script and he really had this baseline feeling and understanding for the characters. He’s got a lot of sympathy and empathy. He had a very soulful reaction to all of these characters, because he recognized they were all trapped.”
Reeves says he doesn’t feel trapped, necessarily, by notions of celebrity or his public image, but he is eager to work with a variety of different people on truly creative projects. He even mentions David Cronenberg as a possible collaborator: “Hear that, David? Hire me!” he says, half-joking, half not.
The proof of Reeves’s desire for professional transformation is evident in the movie itself, as he not only takes on production duties — a big job for a title that came to the festival looking for a sale — but he also threw himself into the role of a complete cipher.
“I think what I loved about it was how Henry doesn’t just change his own life; his presence changes the lives of the other people around him. He activates them by trying to rob a bank,” says Reeves.
“I love it because that’s a lot like life — not the bank robbery part — but this idea that we affect other people. Our actions affect each other, whether it’s friends or family; we don’t live in isolation. The actions of others change us and that’s what you see with (Vera and James). Henry’s decision to rob the bank changes their lives, too.”
Call it cause and effect, or simply recognizing the greater chemistry of the life soup called western civilization, but Reeves is aware of the phenomenon. And he’s fine with it.
“Being in your 40s takes the edge off,” says the somewhat gaunt Reeves. “I don’t know if it’s about comprehension and acceptance, or if it’s simply biochemical, but it’s just easier to move on with stuff. I think we worry about losing the mystery, but it’s still there. There may, in fact, be more.”
Caption: Vera Farmiga and actor Keanu Reeves share a laugh during a Henry's Crime news conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Photograph by: Fred Thornhill, Reuters