There is something to be said for instinct as a crucial acting tool. Cinematic acting is as much a passive and reactive art as it is an assertive one. So much of the story can be conveyed in frame composition, editing, and visual and aural mise-en-scene, that quality dialogue in contemporary film has become relatively expendable. A meaningful look can convey as much as a tightly phrased line. Especially over the past two decades with the advent of digital special effects technology, the actor has become more a palatable body to be contextualized against fantastic background plates and animated cyber beasts, more an angularly shaped videogame cipher, than a performer responsible for constructing a realistic character within a given scene space. Which is why Keanu Reeves is one of the most era-appropriate actors in mainstream film history.
Since he burst onto the scene with a string of California airhead supporting roles in the mid-1980s (though he himself is actually a Hawaii airhead), perhaps most memorably in the teen murder drama River’s Edge (1986) opposite Crispin Glover and Ione Sky, Keanu Reeves has been consistently reliable when measured in box office receipts, claiming $100 million hits in the ’80s (Parenthood),’90s (Speed and The Matrix), and ’00s (the two Matrix sequels and Something’s Gotta Give). And his biggest asset as a performer has simultaneously been the largest source for his derision in critical and public circles: his instinctual, reactive ability to capture a character in a series of empty-eyed stares and monosyllabic line readings. Whether he is supposed to be expressing dull astonishment at the sight of Laurence Fishburne’s ability to manipulate the laws of physics to his own ends within the virtual-reality universe of The Matrix, detached sexual interest in the advances of a gay River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991), or merely delayed-response apathy at the prospect of girlfriend Lori Petty’s imminent demise in Point Break (1991), it does not seem to affect his even-keeled characterizations, which are effectively the same in all three reactions. He is the ultimate tabula rasa, a visually pleasant conduit onto which reactions are contextually inferred.
The Keanu Reeves ‘anti-acting’ acting method, beyond its continued success with audiences, has inspired a new generation of similarly vacuous imitators – chief among them is The Fast and the Furious series lead Paul Walker, whose voice is a carbon copy of his predecessor’s. Former Lord of the Rings elf Orlando Bloom is cut from the same anti-acting cloth. Although he is technically more successful than Walker due to his affiliation with the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, Bloom has yet to nationally open a movie to legitimate box-office success of his own accord. Taylor Lautner, werewolf co-star of the awkwardly titled The Twilight Saga franchise, is only the latest example.
The most incredible attribute of Reeves’s anti-acting method is its versatility across a variety of genres and personalities. Even though Keanu Reeves always comes across as Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise always comes across as Tom Cruise, regardless of the role they play, Reeves can believably careen from savior of the human race 200 years from now to Satan’s lawyer to airhead youth while Cruise cannot. Cruise in real life, it can safely be assumed, is a laser-focused psychopath. Never in his career has Tom Cruise not played some derivative of this character in his films. Keanu Reeves, in all his empty-headed genius, is capable of being all things to all movies, and thus, because his role in any given film is essentially insinuated by his co-stars, the plot and whatever is physically happening external to him in the scene space, we buy him as pretty much whatever it is he’s supposed to be in basically anything. Because he is clearly an empty shell of a person, Reeves’s personality is readily adaptable to a variety of cinematic circumstances.
Take the aforementioned Devil’s Advocate, a criminally marginalized picture directed by DGA head Taylor Hackford. Because Al Pacino spews rapid-fire explicative polysyllabic monologues at Keanu Reeves in every scene they share together that are largely indicative of the arc of the plot, his own feelings, and Keanu’s feelings, all Keanu has to do is look at turns slightly confused, mildly irked, and sort of happy, while Pacino clues us in to the current emotional and narrative state of the film. Because the rest of Reeves’s scenes are played against the great Charlize Theron, as her Mrs. Keanu Reeves slowly loses her mind over the course of the film, all that is required of Reeves is that he blend in with the scenery while Theron chews it to bits. It is a great trick, made all the more remarkable by its astonishing durability across the better part of two decades.
Many great directors have exploited Reeves’s innate inability to act, chief among them Richard Linklater in the druggy A Scanner Darkly (2006), where a wholly indifferent performance by Reeves was brilliantly counteracted by stellar over-the-top supporting turns from Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr., two legitimate acting heavyweights; Gus Van Sant used the same technique when he cast Reeves opposite Phoenix and a veritable potpourri of character vets in hammy cameo appearances for My Own Private Idaho. Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break sports the post-motorcycle accident insanity of Gary Busey as Reeves character Johnny Utah’s hotheaded partner, Papas, and indeed the film would collapse under its own weight if not supplied with an actor so serviceable in so minimally scripted a role as Johnny Utah.
Speed (1994) stands, too, as just such an instance, where Keanu Reeves benefited immensely from a lucky fusion of elements entirely external to his performance. In the film, editor John Wright employs a clipped cutting style that only aids and abets the low-key robotic performing instincts of our Keanu. Every single interaction between Dennis Hopper, the histrionic Al Pacino of the piece, and Reeves is a study in the creation of tension through dynamic shifts. Dennis Hopper’s subtly-named serial bomber Howard Payne hurls an onslaught of elaborately worded threats, taunts and demands Reeves’s way, and Reeves’s understated cop protagonist Jack Traven tries to convey his message with practically as minimal a quantity of words as it is possible to use – ‘We can’t pull that kind of money in time!’ is a pretty representative refrain: simple, to the point, effective. But the contrast works, and Hopper’s long-windedness framed against Reeves’s terseness also serves to linguistically illustrate his instability and zaniness.
Reeves’s dialogue in all his films is typically limited to brief campaign slogan-channeling mission statements. Obviously this is by design, but it also plays to his strengths: he can sell the audience on the idea of a character by sticking to the selling points of his limited dialogue. In much the same way that, say, a limited politician heeds closely to a small portfolio of catchphrases and recurring rhetoric to sell his message, so does Keanu Reeves cater to a script-assisted stable of short-and-sweet message lines in any given role. In Speed, that line is, alternately, ‘shoot the hostage’ or ‘fuck’.
Nowhere was Reeves’s glassy apathy better capitalized upon than in his breakout and still signature role, as Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan in the Bill and Ted time-travel films (1989 and 1991), opposite the completely-forgotten Alex Winter as his counterpart Bill. Why it was Reeves and not Winter that was the breakout only serves to add further fuel to the fire of my pro-Keanu proselytizing. After all, it was Winter who had the savvier line readings, Winter who supplied the full human range of assertive and reactive emotions even given an obviously two-dimensional cinematic palette, and finally it was Winter who actually altered his own voice to adapt the California surfer inflections of Bill S. Preston, Esq. Unlike, say, Reeves, who essentially just depicted Keanu Reeves in a performance that was, like most Keanu Reeves performances, molded into something usable through careful editing and scenic contextualization. A second sequel has recently been announced, with both Reeves and Winter on board.
More than any other actor before or since, Keanu Reeves has benefited the most from belonging wholly to his era. As special effects and editing technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, his blank-slate performances are setting a contemporary precedent for behavior, quality and style. All he has to do is look cool and react, albeit slightly, to whatever happens around him. Thanks to Reeves, the acting component of prior generations is finally an inessential piece of the filmmaking puzzle. Plugging in a vacuous body and allowing his personality to be refracted onto him as a reaction to everything else is, at long last, totally acceptable.
Alexander Kirschenbaum scribbles about movies, TV and basketball all across the web. He fully expects you to disagree with him most of the time, but in his heart, he knows he’s right.