Inside KeanuCon, the First Keanu Reeves Film Festival
by Iana Murray
A Scottish cinema celebrated the actor’s eclectic career with games, food, and a Wyld Stallyns cover band.
It’s a Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, and sitting upstairs in the city’s Centre for Contemporary Arts is not Keanu Reeves, but Death itself. A black robe shrouds his body; his face is piercingly white, and a scythe is perched next to him. He’s challenging me to a game of Connect Four.
This will sound familiar to those acquainted with the 1991 classic Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. In the film, Ted Theodore Logan (Reeves) and his best friend, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter), are murdered by their evil robot selves. To return back to earth, they must defeat the Grim Reaper in a game of their choosing or be banished to hell for eternity.
“No one has ever won,” the Grim Reaper tells Bill and Ted with a devilish smirk on his face—and true to his word, I lose. It’s taking part in the game in the first place that counts, though, in this version of limbo. “What would you watch in the afterlife?” asks Death, as he reveals a pile of prizes. All of them are films starring Keanu Reeves. I choose Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Strange things are afoot at the CCA.
This is KeanuCon, the world’s first Keanu Reeves film festival. For two days, the bravest and most resilient of stans were entrenched in all things Keanu with a ten-(and-a-half-)-movie-long marathon out of the actor’s 64-film-strong oeuvre. The festival was organized by the independent exhibitor Matchbox Cineclub, known locally for their Nicolas Cage festival, Cage-a-rama.
There’s a group in front of me waiting to receive their passes. “Are you here for the dance class?” asks Megan Mitchell, one half of the duo behind the festival.
“No…” they reply, perplexed.
Mitchell laughs. “Good, because this is KeanuCon.”
Naturally, KeanuCon starts at the very beginning: Keanu’s first on-screen role in the National Film Board of Canada–funded short One Step Away. Keanu plays a recalcitrant teenager who lands his mother in financial trouble after he’s caught stealing from a neighbor’s apartment. It has the vibe of a PSA, though there is no discernible social issue to advocate against apart from delinquency. To be honest, it’s not very good—but Keanu’s idiosyncratic screen presence is already recognizable. There’s a vulnerability in him that’s masked by perfunctory fits of rage. That dichotomy of sensitivity and recklessness is a common theme within Keanu’s filmography.
As much as his detractors like to argue the opposite, no two of his roles are the same. He evolves; he’s constantly reinventing himself. To quote KeanuCon’s website, he grows from “babe to baba yaga.”
There’s the angst-ridden teen Keanu. His wide eyes are framed by his delicate features. His walk is uncertain, as if he hasn’t quite gained full control of his lanky limbs just yet. He doesn’t listen to authority. He’s erratic and impulsive. He’s a dreamboat. You can see it in his early roles: Permanent Record, My Own Private Idaho, even Bill & Ted to an extent, though his performance is foregrounded by an aloofness that makes him endlessly endearing.
Then there’s the everyman Keanu. He’s leaner, fitter, athletically exceptional. There’s a confidence in his demeanor. He is the voice of authority. He’s selfless and ambitious. But there’s still a humility within his hero persona that suggests even you can be special. It’s the average-man-turned–Chosen One in The Matrix, the friendly neighborhood cop in Speed, the grieving husband willing to kill 84 people for a dog in John Wick.
One attendee told me that watching Keanu Reeves feels like watching a friend, and perhaps that’s what makes him so appealing. There’s an inherent relatability to him that provides solace in the fact that no matter how extraordinary he appears, he’s still only human. He has the cult status of someone like Nicolas Cage, though festival organizer Megan Mitchell argues that he’s more accessible than his peers. He’s “someone that’s less hard work for audiences,” she says.
To be immortalized in a film festival is a mighty honor, so it begs the question: Why Keanu Reeves? “I don’t think anyone is mad at Keanu ever,” Mitchell says. “I think he’s an actor that has got an innate likability about him. There’s a connection there. Even with some of his sillier films like Constantine or Man of Tai Chi, you know he’s having fun, so the audience is having fun.”
I was having fun. While people rush to the bar during the five-minute breaks between movies, volunteers walk around offering a choice of red or blue jelly beans. Reeves’s early performances are punctuated by an awkwardness that’s usually met with chuckles. When the bus jumps over the gap in the freeway in Speed, the audience bursts into applause, whooping and hollering as if they’re seeing it for the first time.
Reeves has had his critics. Some say he’s wooden, stiff, one-dimensional. Even his most celebrated roles are divisive. As the credits to My Own Private Idaho begin to roll, I hear the person to my right call it “wonderful” and the person to my left call it “shite.”
But there’s a power within the actor’s ability to restrain himself. He is capable of commanding an audience with the minute shifts in his facial expressions alone. By the end of Idaho, his Scott Favor abandons his life of hustling to claim his father’s inheritance. His former friends surprise him, only to be met with a cold, acrid gaze that sends shockwaves. Its effect lingers.
KeanuCon closes with a live set from Wyld Stallyns, not quite the real thing but an equally bodacious cover band. Both Ted from Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey are sharing vocals. Death is back on bass guitar. Heads bang along to the thrashing guitars of the sequel’s theme, “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You.” “Thank you for a most gracious welcome,” faux-Ted #1 says before jumping straight into a rendition of Megadeth’s "Go to Hell."
In this very publication, Alex Pappademas wrote: “Every generation gets its own Keanu Reeves, except every generation's Keanu Reeves is this Keanu Reeves.” Keanu Reeves has achieved an almost mythic status—legend has it that he is immortal. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before he would become fully enshrined, showered in the unadulterated love of his very own film festival.