Whoa. The Films of Keanu Reeves at the TIFF Bell Lightbox
by Anne Brodie
One of the best things about Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox is that for all the arty, foreign, old and experimental films on offer, there are also enough mainstream films, silly comedies, action and “movie star” vehicles to satisfy a city. Cinematheque honours one of Toronto’s own in a new, aptly named retrospective on the films of Keanu Reeves, celebrating his mystery, magnetism and unique contributions to cinema. Jesse Wente programmed the series driven by an infectious enthusiasm for the subject in all his aspects and in all kinds of film.
Keanu Reeves is an enduring movie star, but he’s not necessarily a great actor.
He’s certainly a movie star in the old fashioned sense. A movie star never equated to acting, if you look at classic movie stars, I’m not sure they were great. It’s a performance style, but we have to be impressed with his choices. He started pretty young but when he had the power he made choices that were quite interesting, vacillating between rotoscoped anime movies to blockbusters to smaller films. That’s a very interesting trajectory. There’s something about Keanu Reeves’ performances in that they’re interesting on a lot of levels and I wonder if he isn’t “in” on the whole thing, that part of that is embedded in the performance, or whether its accidental or he’s not unaware.
How did action fit into his trajectory?
We forget how important he was in the 90s. He was an action star, but also a guy who was always interesting. There wasn’t any bigger action star than this guy. Point Break, Speed. It was incredible. And it was written by an important Canadian writer (Graham Yost) and not only Steve Segal ripped the movie off just using different modes of transportation, the idea of taking Lethal Weapon films and transforming them into a different idiom or style.
The Matrix was a boost to his career, to put it mildly.
The Matrix was a huge movie and I think it allowed him to do all sorts of things. The series doesn’t work without him. It was the reason why people bought a DVD player. It came out when they were becoming affordable and making the switch, it was THE movie. “Alright, I’m going to get one so I can watch The Matrix“. Also it was a fusion of cinematic styles from around the world with the genius of the Wachowskis bringing Hong Kong cinema or manga and all that and infusing it with steampunk or film noir or American ideas. The genius of casting him in that role is that his persona allowed Neo to have that sense of wonder and awe. It would have been different with another actor, especially opposite Laurence Fishburne. It made them movie stars. And Hugo Weaving.
His roles are so varied, and kudos to you for summing it up in a word for the retrospective title!
The idea of the retrospective title “Whoa!” and the serious performances are fun, and the films are interesting. They do represent a guy who traversed a wide span of cinema in the last 25 years or so and that it’s both ironic and his signature expression and verbally and Whoa! This guy has made some pretty interesting movies for a guy who isn’t the greatest actor. He embodies a movie star. He’s handsome, a charming guy who is able to put his persona into his roles.
And that’s different from technical talent?
Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart weren’t always brilliant, but they always seemed to be themselves in movies. Here you’ve got the whole package and that’s the thing we don’t see much now. There’s a lot written about there not being movie stars now. It’s hard to say, but method acting and the seventies happened. The movie star changed and some of the stars had that in different ways. Things were produced for people like Keanu. But he has a big movie coming out this year and he’s impressed people with his smaller work, the documentary he did on digital filmmaking. It’s fascinating.
At the height of his stardom, he disappeared. Why do you think he did that?
That played back to the idea of the movie stars when we didn’t have access like we do now. The stars were highly protected by studios and the industry that wanted to present a very specific image to the public. Today they have to do it themselves, create mystery. God forbid he’s all over Twitter. That’s the whole thing. We don’t see him that much. It’s an event when we see him like old school Hollywood, actors do that but it’s rarer because it requires a person in the industry. They must do it themselves.
Also, he doesn’t really need to work, does he?
He’s also a guy who has the freedom at this point to do what he wants. Rock and roll shows, he loves theatre, and he’s made a documentary. His early success has sort of allowed him to do that and also very old school Robert Redford movie stardom, to use it to do other things like start a festival. What they did back in the day, that’s what he embodies. Being Canadian is a bonus and maybe something to do with it, that he’s reserved and that might be true. Also if I had Matrix money I’d probably do exactly what I want to do and not listen to anyone else and totally disappear. He’s got a major release out this year and he stars and that says something. I assume studios still call him a lot and that he’s turning them down and picking and choosing. He’s a movie star.
He has worked with top of the line directors. Who “got” him best?
[Gus] Van Sant got him. In My Own Private Idaho he gave a brilliant performance. He was a great casting choice and the film was a great expression of his talent. Certainly the Wachowskis gave him his most famous films. He’s more than that in the movie inherent Keanu-ness about that performance. But I don’t think he’s inseparable from the role, to me he’s central to the film and the franchise. [Kathryn] Bigelow cast him in Point Break and it was a different side of him, an important part, his brashness and cockiness.
His career is a series of interesting choices by directors right the way through. There’s [Richard] Linklater’s true genius in casting him in A Scanner Darkly with Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson in an animated movie and they’re fantastic in it and he is too. Even then there is something about him and success after emptiness and the ability to be full at the same time. There are moments onscreen in River’s Edge where he appears basic and yet there is something about him that suggests there is more occurring underneath. That’s a persona and a movie star thing and an actor-ly thing. That ability to have almost expressionless vacancy but having depth. In all his roles including Bill and Ted and Neo, that’s unique unto him, a skill or genius of expressing something in that way. It’s innate and it’s in Keanu.