From “My Own Private Idaho” to “The Matrix,” Keanu Reeves has proven himself to be a movie star like no other.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
What is his best performance, and how does it speak to his unique persona?
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Nerdist
I’m cheating a little, because it may not be his best, but it’s certainly my favorite. I was mostly unaware of Keanu Reeves’ before his turn in “Bram Stroker’s Dracula,” which remains in consistent rotation in my own personal cinematic library. I love him in the film, as daffy and poorly accented as he is. I find him beautiful, fascinating, and wholly his own in the role of Jonathan Harker.
The last two “John Wick” movies have always found a way to conspicuously project an old silent comedy onto a wall, or a screen in Times Square, which might just capture the essence of his particular energy. He’s more Buster Keaton than Michael Keaton, a physical performer who’s managed to turn his own limitations as a performer into features. With his piercing eyes, gritted teeth, and long, lanky build, he says so much more with his body than a lot of other actors in the business. While “The Matrix” and the “Wick” films have showcased Reeves’ physicality wonderfully, I want to give a shoutout to 2005’s “Constantine,” a comic book adaptation lambasted in its time but which (justifiably, in my mind) has been getting a long-awaited critical appraisal.
Reeves himself was criticized heavily for being “wrong” for John Constantine, according to fans: he’s American, he’s too wooden, he doesn’t look enough like Sting. But he brought his own unique physical energy to Francis Lawrence’s beautifully rococo vision of the DC Comics character. With his tattered black suit (not dissimilar to his John Wick uniform, minus the long, stringy hair and war-paint stubble), Reeves throws himself into every exorcism and demonic battle with balletic precision. There’s a painterly way to the way he arranges his limbs with each spell cast or totem wielded, affecting a physical presence somewhere between a Hieronymous Bosch painting and a Power Ranger. He plays Constantine as a world-weary noir detective, dry and humorless but more than able to walk in this occult world, and his near-superheroic physicality is a huge part of that. Reeves is movie-star-as-dancer, and “Constantine” is an undersung showcase for his talents.
“The Devil’s Advocate”
I think many would agree that Keanu Reeves has long cornered the market on his own brand of deadpan. We see Reeves put through the wringer plenty in many roles and performances, yet he rarely looks truly out of sorts beneath whatever dishevelment rests on the outside. There’s a grizzled core to that deadpan within Keanu that’s only going to improve, age, and harden further, likely following a path similar to someone like Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson.
Reminiscing, I’m left to wonder when Keanu Reeves showed a little pep in his pensive pulse besides going back thirty years to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” One role that has always stood out for me over the years was Keanu co-headlining Taylor Hackford’s twisted and slow burn 1997 thriller “The Devil’s Advocate” next to Al Pacino. Overcoming a terrible southern/Floridian accent, Keanu squeezed his post-“Speed” charm in a dark direction under the seduction of Pacino’s prancing preening and the dueling allure of Connie Nielsen and Charlize Theron. The movie’s erotic vanity, which couldn’t get close to being made the same way today, poked and prodded Keanu’s impassivity enough for 144 indulgent minutes to unravel it into explosive emotional outbursts on-screen. Very few roles have broken that wall in Reeves to that degree, which shows us two things: just how strong that core is and how interesting the actor can be away from it.
I did not see this performance, but heard about it, related as if at a seance. On this night within a gentle Santa Ana, the zoo bus of journalists traveled remorseless circles along back roads toward Culver City for an early screening of a movie with Keanu Reeves. Los Angeles was dark and the bus was dim. The hacks were in jolly form, trashing recent movies, making mock of actors or celebrities they had encountered in recent weeks. The journalist called up one of their treasured stage memories. They had seen decades of Hamlets, in the West End, on Broadway, at the Stratford Festival, and they had simple-sum descriptions of major performances which were never committed to another medium. Yet, they said, there was the stellar performance, in at least one attribute: Keanu Reeves’ 1995 “Hamlet,” in Winnipeg at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Audiences were ecstatic, reviewers rapt. They reassured me that except for the now-familiar flat affect of Reeves’ voice—this was just past “Speed”— no other Hamlet came close to the physical needs of the play in the Northern Hemisphere for fathoms and fathoms of the mid-to-late twentieth century. “Lanky and feline. Confounded youth. He was beautiful and present.”
Keanu Reeves is an odd one. In spite of his lengthy and impressively varied career, there’s still a general and often deliberate misunderstanding of his appeal. Or rather, there are a lot of people who consider his talents as a performer ultimately…lacking. It can be difficult to argue for Keanu Reeves, the dramatic actor, because his skill-set is based around his looseness — that laid-back, California surfer dude charisma (never mind the fact he’s actually Canadian). When he branches out, Reeves is magic. The past few years have given us some wonderfully weird performances in the likes of “The Bad Batch”, “The Neon Demon”, and the otherwise execrable “Knock Knock” (his “free pizza!” speech is truly something to behold), suggesting Reeves isn’t afraid to play against type.
The “John Wick” series has given Keanu Reeves, dramatic actor, a new lease of life primarily because his titular killer marries the various sides of his personality; his laser focus (sometimes to Reeves’ detriment, as in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), deadpan sense of humor, and innate, naturally off-kilter charm. Nobody could accuse Reeves of phoning it in as John Wick. He’s in virtually every frame of these movies, kicking butt and delivering one liners while looking like he’s simultaneously exhausted beyond belief and having the time of his life. Wick is like his Johnny Utah, from “Point Break,” but grown up and with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Recently, Reeves was asked for his thoughts on what happens after we die. He gave a characteristically philosophical answer, in keeping with his “It’s quantum, baby!” outlook on life, but the actor also gave an insight into how he deals with the pain of loss, and how he channels that into his work. Never is Keanu Reeves, the actor, more honest with his audience than in the “John Wick” series. It’s the perfect victory lap for a performer who, for years now, has been seen as someone not trying hard enough. Finally, he can let everybody know just how much he cares.
Though other stars were sought out during the casting process–Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt–it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine any actor other than Keanu Reeves as Neo in “The Matrix” trilogy. He brings a stoic, avatar-like presence to the role, a nondescript aura of brooding intensity. He is an Anyone who is also The One, a dorky dude-bro who is will transform into a capable and threatening presence. His “Whoa” comes across as Neo (and Reeves) being genuinely dumbfounded by who he is and what he’s become. The original film was so formative in my own cinephile history, opening my eyes to the possibilities of the cinematic form, making me aware of the significance of camera movements, framing, color palette, and production design. And in the center of it all is Reeves, holding the trilogy together via his reserved charisma. This is precisely what works so well in the “John Wick” trilogy: once again, Reeves is in a fantastical world as a captivating Everyman capable of defeating Every Other Man with balletic, bulletic force. And it’s glorious. Whoa, indeed.
The amount of explanation that occurs in the first half of “The Matrix,” as the film’s universe is introduced, would have led many actors to feel lost in the material. But Reeves understands the journey that Neo is undertaking from the very start, and nothing about his work here ever feels uninspired: he understands that a performance too big would have disturbed the script’s tone and meticulous world-building, while simply taking everything at surface level would have caused the film to feel scattershot without a well-defined main character. It’s a unique and precise balance that he has demonstrated throughout his career, and he uses it to great effect in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi classic, adding his own valued contributions to the film’s seemingly innumerable quantity of innovations.
“The Matrix.” Sure, I could have dug up a more obscure Keanu Reeves film to choose (“A Scanner Darkly” was a strong contender), but Reeve’s singular gift is the ability to project Gary Cooper-level unflappability in the face of the ridiculous and the awesome. And no movie served up more ridiculous and awesome for Keanu to play against than the first “Matrix” movie. The crazier it gets, the more calm and centered Reeves’ Neo becomes, until he’s almost drifting, dreamlike and distracted, through the final battles.
I’ve always been surprised by critics who would call Reeves’ performances “wooden” or “unexpressive” – to me, if the material is right, he projects the cool certainty of a great baseball closer on the mound. The fact that, deep down under that coolness, he seems like a delightful dork is just icing on the cake.
“My Own Private Idaho”
Enough people have written about Keanu’s physical acting already, and none of them better than Angelica Bastien – if you haven’t read her essay about him yet, please seek it out; she articulated what’s so great about him far better than I could. Instead of trying to repeat Angelica’s words, I’d encourage people to seek out Keanu’s non-physical work, especially “My Own Private Idaho.” “Idaho” is ostensibly River Phoenix’s movie, but Keanu plays a pivotal role, and the stiffness that so many people hate about him is played as a strength. His character is uncomfortable and unwilling to become the person so many people want him to be. It’s a great piece of casting and a role that I appreciate very much.
“The Neon Demon”
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Keanu Reeves is one of the best action stars of all time. But one of the reasons he’s been able to quietly outlast more traditional action heroes of his generation is the way he’s transitioned quite ably to a post-star economy, where he has his big vehicles like the “John Wick” series alongside roles in smaller projects that might only play a few theaters, or mostly on VOD. In other words, he’s cultivated the character-actor side hustle that a lot of handsome young actors would do well to emulate, and it’s become a major delight to see him pop up unexpectedly in his middle age.
That delight may be why my pick for his best non-action performance is in “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s little-loved slow-burn horror picture. Reeves only has a few scenes as Hank, the seedy and menacing proprietor of the motel that aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) makes her hopefully-temporary Los Angeles home. When he was younger, Reeves was often criticized for having a narrow range, but apart from the ways that Hank doesn’t much resemble, say, Neo, or John Wick, or Ted Logan, he shows impressive range within a single part; Hank is by turns scary, sleazy, and darkly hilarious. The strain that occasionally afflicted his performances in his younger days is gone, and Reeves feels comfortable even when playing a lousy creep.
Reeves often discovers his most fertile creative ground while exploring grief. Death and mortality looms as the background spectre of his most acclaimed work, whether he’s portraying the demon-hunting John Constantine, attending two separate funerals at the conclusion of “My Own Private Idaho,” or questioning the limits our existence in the “Matrix.”
“River’s Edge” represents his best and most intriguing exploration of death. A quasi-horror film, Reeves found himself in only his second feature-film role. Based around the murder of a young teenage girl, Reeves plays a fellow teen left too emotionally unattached to mourn, yet too guilt-stricken not to inform the authorities of the real culprit (his best friend).
While the “River’s Edge’s” cast predominantly opts for exteriority, Reeves taps into the interiority of grief. In scenes where Glover’s unhinged performance takes center stage, the eye still drifts to what Reeves is doing. He occupies a space, breathing with the psychological horror occurring around him. He protects his emotions, releasing them in subtle and stirring drips, only exposing his grief in the pseudo burial of a doll or during the instances when he’s compartmentalizing his fear of Glover’s character. Reeves’ performance appears simple, but there’s nothing more difficult than existing.
In Reeves’ performance, one can spot every component that would later lead to his underrated success. Fearless to exist as himself, his ahead-the-curve role predates “Heathers” and “Thoroughbreds.” His Zen-like control would be on display in a myriad of future roles as well. And his interest in grief and existence taps into our inner-most psychological fears and fascinations. “River’s Edge” remains the best exhibition of his acting ability and his on-going formula for success.
Long before checking into the Continental Hotel, Keanu Reeves starred in an underseen drama called “Permanent Record.” Released between “River’s Edge” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Reeves gives a compelling and disparate performance as Chris Townsend, an underachieving high school senior struggling to make sense of life after his best friend’s suicide. What makes this my favorite Keanu performance is that he seems more uninhibited and emotionally raw in this role than in those that came after the persona of Ted Theodore Logan earned him no small amount of typecasting. Sure, the character of Chris Townsend can be reduced to some combination of his various roles – mix Matt from “River’s Edge” with Ted and you’re on the right track.
What’s fascinating about this film is that he’s not holding anything back during the more emotionally charged moments where he confronts the tragic loss of his friend. There are multiple scenes where his character breaks down and his performance is not only effective, it’s utterly heartbreaking. Don’t worry, the fun and quirky side of Keanu is still present and accounted for in this feature, but there’s a relaxed and candid quality to his dramatic work in these earlier films – “My Own Private Idaho” being another example – that I, for one, would love to see a lot more of.
While “Point Break” opened the door for Keanu Reeves to become an action movie superstar, for me, it was “Speed” that best distilled his essence of hotness and heroics. There’s a reason why I saw it seven times in its original theatrical release back in 1994. He is that reason. He’s in full command and at total ease in the role of quick-thinking LAPD officer Jack Traven. His dialogue delivery is assured – especially the goofy one-liners. He even finds levity within the escalating tension. The pressing urgency of his character’s quest to be a selfless savior compounds scene after scene thanks to his performance. Plus, he looks good doing it. More than likely this was a breather to heavier dramatic roles in “My Own Private Idaho” and stylistically confined ones in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” He’s having fun here and it shows. His willingness to vary his roles is what makes him undeniably himself.
I’ve given this subject a lot of thought lately, because I just wrote a piece on why Reeves is a better actor than he gets credit for.
As for his best performance, I’d have to pick his work as Jack Traven in “Speed.” The role requires him to be a viable action hero and a romantic leading man. He has dramatic scenes, but also some that are more comedic. Although it’s just a piece of escapist entertainment, “Speed” works because Reeves does everything required of him with great skill.