I was six years old when I first saw The Matrix, lying stomach-down on my dad’s air mattress in an underground studio apartment. I was too young to really comprehend it (surprisingly, children lack a strong enough basis of reality to grasp the impact of a conspiracy), but that didn’t stop the film from transfixing me on a textural level. The cold steel color tones, the slippery leather, the cleanness of the white-collar surface world in contrast to the grimy, pajama clad rebels in the “real” world—these were all planted firmly in the back of my mind as an invisible lens to see the world through. That is the sole purpose of storytelling, isn’t it? It is a tool we use to better understand an infinitely complex world. The Matrix is a popular story, one of the hero’s journey. As a single child who only saw his depressed dad a handful of times in a month, the other male model in his life being an abuser, I wanted to see myself as somebody stronger than his circumstances. Keanu Reeves was that somebody, though I only knew of him as Neo at the time. What I remember most from my first viewing of the film, more prominent than even the belly button bug and the tight leather suits, was Reeves himself, and the way his sincerity seemed to radiate off him almost visibly. With his cool, hopeful gaze, his deadpan delivery and heroic charisma, he showed me a strength I hadn’t seen in the snarky cartoons of the time. He showed me vulnerability, and I was intoxicated by it.
Where I felt this in 2005, others could see it near the start of his career. It’s no wonder that women would be responsible for Keanu Reeves’ path to action star-hood. When Kathryn Bigelow pushed for Reeves to be in Point Break in 1990, action stars in film were reflective of the masculine identity of the time. This was the decade of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the decade of the outrageous machismo man flooding cinema screens with sweat and bullets and grizzly-ness This is not itself an invalid form of masculinity, but when the only male identity presented is one entirely forged by men, you have created a vacuum for sexuality. Keanu Reeves not only showed a vulnerable side to the action star, but an intimacy with the camera and the audience that I have yet to see from another modern male actor. In the same year, he was hired by Gus Van Sant as a sexually fluid drug dealer and even voted Most Desirable Male by MTV (Patrick Swayze was also nominated), furthering that many Americans wanted something different from Hollywood’s proposed masculinity. Something more elegant and subtle, which Reeves displays effectively in each performance.
Noting this, I find it strange how quick people are to undersell Keanu Reeves’ acting ability, seeing his performance as wooden – only suitable for niche roles like The Matrix. I would always argue to them that they missed why Neo is a memorable character, as it’s essentially a microcosm of Reeves as a unique talent. He understands his body, its use as character in relation to the camera. He understands intimacy with the texture of the film and he works hard to find balance inside it. Reeves sees action as ballet, realizing influences from chinese opera and the Shaw Brothers produced martial arts films from his childhood. Where Hong Kong cinema found its limits with dramatic acting, Reeves pulls from the actors who made classic Hollywood cinema great, as he conveys a story through his posture and body language. Reeves knows something that many modern actors still haven’t grasped: that every motion is expressive. In A Scanner Darkly, his character stumbles around Los Angeles in a drained stupor, speaking plainly and boredly, exhausted from his inability to control the events around him. We see something similar in Constantine, where he plays a jaded demon hunter (and noted fashion icon). This is a common theme with Keanu, often we see his heroic drive to push forward despite the toll he’s taken. It’s an admirable affection of an actor who has been faced repeatedly with tragedy and loneliness, but never known to compromise his work ethic. Co-stars praise his tenacity when beset with sixteen-hour workdays, illness during shoots (he filmed the club scene in John Wick with a 104º fever), and several month training excursions. Keanu Reeves is more devoted to his job than anybody could expect, and saying he does it poorly is somewhat naive. The delivery may be dry at first sight, but he brings a yearning, isolated humanity to every role he takes, and that’s something his co-stars could learn from.
It’s 2017, and filmmakers are still finding new uses for his body. Earlier this week I got the oppurtunity to see Ana Lily Armirpour’s The Bad Batch. I was unconscious for most of it (note to self: stop going to late showings when you’ve been working at five in the morning every day), but I watched enough to understand the message, one that was missed by many a male film critic despite it’s heavy handedness. Simply put, the film is about the patriarchal notion that women are destined for motherhood. I was fascinated with how Armipour used Keanu’s confident grace against the protagonist, and therefore the audience, as a metaphor for the maliciousness of this notion. Nicolas Winding Refn took a similar approach in last year’s The Neon Demon, Reeves being the sleazy motel owner (though this performance was notably creepier). So it seems we’re beginning to see a new use of the actor’s inherent beauty – beauty as deception – and it works wonderfully. More than thirty years into his career, our beloved actor is just as prolific as he was in the late 90s, and I think that’s something to celebrate.