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Bright Wall/Dark Room February 2016: "The Grace of Keanu Reeves" by Angelica Jade Bastién

The February issue of online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room is called "The Unloved," and is focused on making a case for a handful of unloved and overlooked movies. In addition to this excerpted essay from Angelica Jade Bastién about Keanu Reeves, this month's issue also has pieces on "Elizabethtown," "The Hobbit" trilogy, "Afternoon Delight," "Bellflower," "The Sweetest Thing," "Detention," and "The Man Who Knew Too Little." The illustration above is by Brianna Ashby. 

You can read previous excerpts from the magazine here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or purchase a copy of their current issue, go here.


I. Transfixing Stillness

Keanu Reeves missed his calling as a silent film actor. 

Critics and viewers alike refer to him as stiff, shallow, fake, always playing himself. These opinions have been repeated enough that they’re treated like fact. But this critique misses something. Keanu’s power lies not in transformation or the ability to wrap his mouth around clever word play. No, Keanu is at his most powerful when film is at its most elemental. Like Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and the greatest of silent actors, Keanu has immense screen presence and a keen understanding of communicating story through physicality, albeit with a very modern inflection. A simple glance or curled lip can unfurl lengthy character history or upend expectations.

But this isn’t the commonly held image of Keanu as an actor. He’s been steadily working since the mid-1980s, his earliest defining role one-half of the titular loveable but dim-witted duo in "Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure" (1989). Through a variety of high profile blockbusters, low-key dramas, and interested misfires in period pieces, Keanu is still stuck in the amber of our first impression; we don’t treat him with the seriousness he deserves. At best, Keanu is regarded as a guilty pleasure. At worst, he’s seen as a truly bad actor of little worth. No matter where you fall, you likely believe he isn’t worthy of critical study or even much respect for his craft. But this image—of odd blankness, affability but dim wit, worth only found in action films—ignores how purely cinematic his acting style is. For Keanu, acting isn’t a mode of transformation but a state of being. He transmutes story into flesh.

In the biography Furious Love, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger recount Richard Burton’s bafflement, acting alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the splendidly overwrought "Cleopatra" (1963), over her seeming lack of technique: “ ‘She’s just not doing anything,’ he complained to [Joseph L.] Mankiewicz.” But the director pulled him aside and showed him footage “that took his breath away.” Burton, Kashner and Schoenberger explain, “was struck by Elizabeth’s absolute stillness,” and learned from her “how to tone down the theatrical performances for the camera’s cool eye.” 

I’ve often wondered if Keanu’s costars ever think the same thing, since he has a similar transfixing stillness. Bret Easton Ellis once noted that Keanu has a “stillness, an awkwardness even, that is unusually empathetic. He is always hypnotic to watch.” When you watch him opposite actors with more pronounced tics—like Robert Downey Jr. in "A Scanner Darkly"—Reeves almost seems like he’s doing nothing. But still, your eyes gravitate toward him.

Because of Keanu’s style, the gap between his good and bad performances is a chasm. There is no middle ground for him (which perhaps explains some people’s distaste for his work). Keanu’s failed performances are those that push him toward a theatricality against his natural instincts. They also tend to be the kind of roles actors use to challenge or prove themselves—difficult accents, lush period pieces, reliance on verbal dexterity. The most damning performance in his career is that of Jonathan Harker, the fiancé to the legendary vampire’s object of obsession in Francis Ford Coppola’s fever dream take on Bram Stoker’s "Dracula." If you ever come across a list of the top acting miscasts, Keanu’s performance in the film is likely on it. The critical reaction to his role is so poor it has its own subsection on the film’s Wikipedia page. It’s hard to figure out which review is the most damning. Total Film writes dismissively that “[y]ou can visibly see Keanu attempting to not end every one of his lines with ‘dude.’” Entertainment Weekly said he appeared “out of his depth.” AskMen was especially vicious, writing, “It’s one thing to cast Keanu Reeves as an esteemed British lawyer, but it’s quite another to ask him to act alongside Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins[...] [They] ran circles around the poor Canuck, exposing his lack of range, shoddy accent, and abysmal instincts for all to see.”

Yes, in "Dracula" Keanu is overburdened by the period costumes, lost in the details of each frame as if he were another illusion, appearing as though he’s wandered onto the wrong set. This isn’t because he’s out of his depth. It’s because he’s fighting against his natural instincts as an actor. The harsh criticism of Keanu’s performance in Dracula seeks to dismiss his career as a whole. But Keanu wouldn’t have such a long-running, successful career without fulfilling a cultural need or tapping into something primal that draws our attention.

II. The Crossroads of Virile and Vulnerable

One critical consistency between Keanu’s virulent pans and more beloved roles (think of the tender-hearted hustler in 1991’s "My Own Private Idaho") is the common refrain that Keanu always “just plays himself.” The harsh ring of “just” implies a lack of craft and worth as an actor. The statement also assumes we truly know the personalities of stars. We can rattle off details of Keanu’s tragedies during the 1990s (stillborn child, death of his girlfriend eighteen months later), find plenty of platitudes about his kindness, and get a narrow view of his personality through interviews. The act of thinking we know a star as high-profile as Keanu isn’t novel, especially in the age of never ending press cycles and paparazzi. What’s more fascinating, though, is what the “playing himself” criticism says about Keanu as an actor. 

Critics and audiences alike have a warped view of the history of acting, as if “true” cinematic acting began with the deification of Marlon Brando, followed by the 1970s glory days of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Each of these actors pronouncedly transform themselves from role to role. They take on various accents with panache, layer on idiosyncrasies, whittle their bodies down or bulk themselves up. A character is a costume to put on and never take off until the last camera rolls. It isn’t a coincidence that Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey’s recent renaissances and newfound respect both involved dramatic weight loss. Keanu is one of the few high-profile modern actors to not go for willful physical transformation or uglify himself for gravitas. If you’re not “transforming” as an actor, there is a belief that you’re doing something wrong. This line of thinking harkens back to the idea that we must suffer for our art. But Keanu is more powerful than actors who rely on physical transformation as shorthand for depth, because he taps into something much more primal and elusive: the truth.

The first time we see Keanu as FBI Agent Johnny Utah in the beloved surfer-crime drama "Point Break" (1991), he sits on the hood of a car seemingly unperturbed by the rain pouring down on him. It takes a moment to recognize the shotgun that sits in his lap. His hair slick. His tight black shirt and jeans clinging to his impressive body. The camera holds close to his lips as he unfurls a piece of gum and puts it into his mouth, and then we see a sequence of him blasting through a gun course at Quantico. This introduction gives rise to the kind of action star Keanu grows into, much different than his 1980s predecessors who tended to be powered by an unerring confidence and machismo. Their emotional landscapes weren’t as developed as their biceps. The opening of "Point Break" illustrates how Keanu’s relationship with the camera informs his onscreen masculinity. He carries himself with a supple vulnerability, at times even a passivity, that seems at odds with the expectations for an action star. 

I’ve found myself attracted to Keanu’s presence because of the way he marries typically masculine and feminine qualities. He’s both intense and vulnerable, kind and tough, honest and mysterious. Keanu, of course, isn’t the first star to exist at the crossroads of virile and vulnerable. Actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman embody a similar alchemy that have drawn women (and men) to them. But these actors often seem to fight against the lustful gaze of the camera, while Keanu supplants himself to it. Where they seem cynical, disinterested, or too wounded as a romantic lead, Keanu is utterly open.

In "Point Break," he’s a hotshot with a gun and a badge. But he’s also an object of lust for the camera (and audience), with a disarmingly open smile. Furthermore, without the help of a woman—the short-haired pixie vixen surfer Tyler (Lori Petty)—he wouldn’t be able to integrate himself into the gang of robbers/surfers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). This artful dynamic—a woman of greater skill guiding a passive man into a world beyond his imagination—develops even further in "The Matrix" (1999). Some of this, of course, exists on a plot level. But Keanu tends to let his scene partners take the lead, becoming almost a tabula rasa on which they (and we) can project our ideas of what it means to be a hero, a man, a modern action star. 

III. Modern Loneliness 

"Constantine" (2005) has a lot working against it. As an adaptation of the Hellblazer comics from Vertigo, it isn’t memorable. But as a continuation of Keanu’s thematic exploration of loneliness as an actor, it is. "Constantine" casts off most of the comics’ canon for the screen. Gone is the London setting, the character’s British background. The cynicism, chain smoking, and dark humor remain, even though Keanu (who is of Chinese, Hawaiian, and English descent) looks nothing like the blonde-haired comic character. Searching for emotional truth in a fantasy comic adaptation involving a working class magician who can see angels and demons and toys with the black arts seems like a fool’s errand. But sometimes you find grace in unlikely places. Amongst CGI demons, Tilda Swinton’s androgynous take on the archangel Gabriel, and lots of hellfire, Keanu somehow provides a trenchant take on the burden of loneliness in the big city.

(When looking closer at Keanu’s career, loneliness comes into focus as a thematic preoccupation. He’s often disconnected from the world around him, forging relationships only with intense effort or by accident. While he’s a great romantic lead—more so in films where romance isn’t the main plotline—I think he’s even better suited to moments when he’s wading through the cold, dark waters of spiritual isolation.)

The loneliness that comes with the modern metropolis—like Los Angeles, where Constantine resides—has a different tenor than loneliness anywhere else. It’s magnified to such a great degree in part because of the bizarre effects of population density. Everyone handles loneliness differently. Many, like Constantine, take to trying on addictions and seeing which fit. And addiction aside, most people dealing with loneliness—including myself—acquire weird habits to fill the darkness. A small moment about thirty minutes into "Constantine" (just before he meets Rachel Weisz’ earnest, Catholic cop who has yet to realize she’s being swept up in a battle between heaven and hell) illustrates the idiosyncrasies that come with loneliness.

Constantine sits alone under the harsh fluorescent lights of his apartment, doing what he does best—slow self-destruction at the hands of smoking and alcohol. A spider as sickly as the peeling paint on his walls tumbles across the table. He puts the spider under an empty glass, watching it for a few moments with dull curiosity as it makes sense of its tiny, glass prison. He blows some cigarette smoke into the glass, but keeps the spider trapped. “Welcome to my life,” he remarks. It’s a series of small gestures only the lonely think of, then actually go through with. Enacted by other movie stars, this moment could come across as maudlin or empty. But the great beauty of Keanu’s skill makes the short scene at once painfully earnest, chillingly lonely, and aching with self-pity. 

"Constantine" taps into a lot of what makes Keanu sincerely watchable and an actor of surprising depth. An emotional truthfulness? Check. Strong physicality? Just watch the way he plays with a pack of cigarettes or curls his body when he has a coughing fit. Interesting handling of modern masculinity? It’s all there, even if the film isn’t always aware of it. And nine years later, Keanu would finally find a vehicle that perfectly amplifies his strengths.

IV. Keanu Reeves, Action Star (A Certain Baggage)

"John Wick" (2014) stars Keanu as the titular former assassin, so feared he gained the nickname Baba Yaga (The Boogeyman). From the moment we see Keanu as John Wick, he carries himself like he’s wounded. These psychological wounds eventually give way to physical ones. His peaceful retirement is first interrupted by the death of his wife, then his old life creeping back in. Before her death, his wife arranged for him to receive an adorable puppy named Daisy, meant to help him grieve, and Wick gradually warms up to the dog. Unfortunately, he crosses paths with Iosef (Alfie Allen), the obnoxious son of a powerful mob boss/former associate. Maybe if Iosef knew of Wick’s reputation, he wouldn’t have brutally beaten Wick, killed Daisy, and stolen his 1969 Mustang. This crime leads Wick on a quest for revenge through a deadly world full of the ghosts of his past profession. "John Wick" synthesizes Keanu’s greatness—his central, thematic loneliness; his command of physicality and stillness; and his peculiarly vulnerable masculinity.

On the surface, "John Wick" is a simple, classic story of revenge with some of the most impressive world-building I’ve seen in years. Beyond that, though, it metatextually capitalizes on the story arc of Keanu Reeves, Action Star, regaining his title in the genre. He sells every punch given or received, every thrown knife, every ounce of blood spilled. There is weight to the action in the film. You see the toll it takes on his body and, at times, a minute shift of his expression acknowledging how age affects performance. When he’s already wounded and gets into a fight for his life with Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), we feel it. 

Wick is cut from the same cloth as Alain Delon’s assassin in "Le Samourai" (1969), whose cool stoicism and impressively-styled badassery yields a heavy influence. But while Delon and his kin seem sharp and cold, like cut glass, Wick is powered by something altogether different—longing, loss, connection. In Keanu’s hands, Wick isn’t void of emotion—or struggling with its first pangs—but brimming with it. 

The film frames Wick as mythic. His face moves from mournful to vengeful at a clip. His eyes lock with a man just as he stabs him in the gut until he dies, while lights the color of cotton candy blue and magenta shift the architecture of his face to something fearsome. Keanu tells Wick’s story through his body—the way he wears a suit and his wedding ring, the cool determination in his eyes, the flash of warmth in a brief scene with Addy (Bridget Regan), the slackness in his face when he sees Daisy dead. This is a man who has nothing to lose, who carries the weight of his history with each step—and “his” history here is both Wick’s and Keanu’s. Stars like Keanu bring a certain baggage with them—the roles we’ve loved, the bitter taste of when they’ve failed us, half-remembered gossip. This context informs "John Wick."

There are actors we admire, and then there are the stars we love. The best of them get under our skin, becoming a part of our lives, following us through tragedies and triumphs. Keanu is one of those stars for me because of the sheer joy watching him brings. But there’s also the joy for the medium that radiates off him. Actors like Keanu—who find beauty in stillness—are why film was created in the first place. It’s a medium that can show us the truth of the human condition in a way no other form can. Keanu often taps into the truth of the shifting boundaries of modern masculinity, of how our bodies tell as much of a story as what we say. "John Wick" is as much a slick revenge flick as a fairytale. Keanu Reeves is back, the film seems to be whispering to us. 

But was he ever gone in the first place?  

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