Keanu Reeves always gets nailed. There’s no denying he’s had his fair share of laughable roles, and there’s no denying the man has taken a long time to learn his craft. He can’t manage Brad Pitt’s intensity, Edward Norton’s chameleon slickness, Matt Dillon’s wry, self-aware charm, Rob Lowe’s comic timing, or even Adam Baldwin’s sociopathic good humor. He first got famous playing a dope and reached the apex of his popularity as a ridiculous comic-book messiah whose philosophy could basically be summed up as: “Whoa….”
Reeves plays it so low to the ground that he’s always on the cusp of self-parody — and there are moments when he slips over the line. He’s pursued a strategy of blankness, of flatness — that is his range, and he doesn’t try to leave it. Instead he’s spent a career perfecting it, giving it little tweaks here and there, little wrinkles in the flat surface that can really only be seen in the right light, at the right angle.
But few of the critics and fans who are so dismissive of Reeves’ performances as empty-headed (Jeremiah Kipp at Slant claims that he can “speak mumbo-jumbo he probably doesn’t understand and make it sound rich in meaning” — a back-handed compliment at best) seem to take into account that Reeves is a consistently astute reader of scripts. For every big action wheezer he’s taken to pay the bills (and here we could easily call out Norton and Pitt on the same grounds), Reeves has taken on roles he may not have been ready for (I liked him as the evil Prince John in Much Ado About Nothing, but most viewers saw him as a surfer boy itching in tights) but which put him in the company of great actors and in the service of great scripts. In addition to Shakespeare, Reeves has tried such difficult and risky projects as River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho, Dangerous Liaisons, Little Buddha, and, let it be said, The Matrix itself, which was by no means guaranteed success. Moreover, he has continued, even this late in his career, to work in tiny little films which can’t possibly burnish his image or contribute to anything but his own understanding of the craft. After all, has anyone, anywhere, actually seen The Last Time I Committed Suicide? And Freaked, though funny and enjoyable in its way, must have had a theatrical audience of five. Including Alex Winter’s mom.
And now, in three recent films, Reeves at last seems to be developing a certain naturalness before the camera, combined with a good deal of humor about his own public image. In 2005’s Thumbsucker, he plays his archetype to the hilt as a blissful Buddhist orthodontist and spiritual guide to an insecure teenager. His character is introduced as a distillation of everything Keanu: the smooth, breathy voice, the nearly-blank, yet slightly perplexed, expression, the comically bombastic dialogue delivered in complete earnest. But there’s something knowing in this presentation — the character may be dippy and faux-wise, but the actor seems perfectly at home giving us this picture, and we suspect there’s more to come. And sure enough, as the film unfolds, the character reveals himself to be both actually wise at times and not nearly so blissful and Zenned-out as he seems. (In one of the best scenes of the film, he and the boy’s father have a hilarious and positively animalistic competition in a local road race.) Reeves handles all this with humor, irony, and grace, and he’s by far the best thing in a film whose cast also includes Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Tilda Swinton.
Then this year, he starred in The Lake House, a remake of the 2000 Korean film Siworae. (시월에 — “in October”, also sometimes titled Il Mare and sometimes distributed on DVD in a Mandarin or Cantonese dub.) This was an enormous calculated risk — bigger than the one he took in appearing in The Matrix, which after all at least followed Speed, in which he had established himself as a watchable action star. The success of The Lake House, a romantic fantasy about two residents of the same house, separated in time by two years, who communicate by means of a magical mailbox (and possibly a magical dog, as well), hinges totally on the ability of its two leads (of whom Sandra Bullock is the other) to convey falling in love almost entirely without the other person present. The Korean film benefited from some low-key, genial acting by Jung-Jae Lee and Ji-hyun Jun and a close, cocooned feel, never straying too much from the house and its grounds. The American version ambitiously tries to follow the characters in their separate lives, meaning that each actor has to carry a whole plotline alone. Although the script devotes slightly more time and emphasis to Bullock’s character, surprisingly, it’s Reeves who carries the film. Because of the time-travel gimmick, it’s Reeves’ character who is asked to be more patient, more faithful, to give us more of the romantic gestures — and he is not only completely believable in all this, but utterly likeable and genuine.
The film ultimately falters on its own undercooked conceit, becoming illogical in the realms of character and narrative simultaneously (and, to my mind, unnecessarily) as screenwriter David Auburn tries for one last twist. (I don’t remember the Korean version well enough to say whether this flaw is there as well.) But Reeves and Bullock, both long considered lightweights, do more than their share here, and Reeves in particular in natural, funny, spontaneous, easy — everything we’ve hoped for, everything we want in this, a romance that, until it snags a toe on the sci-fi carpeting, is smarter and more mature than it ought to be.
And now he’s in A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s semi-animated adaption of the classic Philip K. Dick novel. The film is much better than I had feared; it’s inevitably not as dense and complex as the novel, but it hits all the right points: the comic paranoia and confusion of its drug addict characters, the tragic, chilling slide into irreversible disconnection from reality, the way the distribution system and the law-enforcement system mirror and re-inforce one another.
Linklater’s narrative style — meandering and observational — and paintbox visual experiments — perhaps a little too soft and creamy — had me worried, and at times they do work across the grain of Dick’s sand-on-sweat description and his tightly-wound story coil. But in the vast majority of cases, this friction produces a useful heat — Linklater has dialed down the disconcerting sense of space that the rotoscoping produced in Waking Life, and instead concentrated on the creepy, highly specific textures of a decaying suburban tract house or an oddly empty office corridor. What he might lose in the physical specificity of an actor’s sweat or twitching skin he more than gains in a precise sense of place — every environment in the film is gradually perfected, until we know it intimately and dread it because we know it. And Linklater and Bob Sabiston’s evocation of the “scramble suit,” a thin fabric sheath that holographically projects an ever-shifting meld of various human forms as an impenetrable disguise, is at first puzzling, then intriguing, then unrelentingly sinister, and finally merely a sad, discarded skin.
Meanwhile, the actors are in top form. Like Andy Serkis in the Rings trilogy and King Kong, they are essentially providing the model for a computer interpretation of their features and movements, but because Linklater and Sabiston cleave so much more closely here to realism than they did in Waking Life, the actors are given a full range of expression to work with — the animation compliments and quietly counterpoints the acting, but it never takes over.
And here, in a role that demands nearly every tone Reeves can sing and a few he’s never tried before, he doesn’t set out to dazzle, but maintains elegant control over a character who’s gradually splitting in two. It hardly needs to be said how easily this could slide over into Flowers for Algernon-style grand melodrama, but Linklater and Reeves contrive to keep the emotion tightly battened down in order to get at a deeper level of horror and a profounder sense of loss. Reeves effortlessly fits into the counter-cultural merry improv of hyper-verbal Robert Downey, Jr. and energetic, loose-limbed, floppy-haired Woody Harrelson, but he’s also capable of being the analytical cop, the acute and paranoid drug dealer, and the man whose perceptions slowly dissolve away from his intellect. It’s a remarkable performance, and if some members of the audience I saw this with were tempted to giggle when he solemnly soliloquizes on St. Paul’s “we see now as through a glass, darkly,” perhaps reminded of his equal solemnity in pronouncing the utterly bogus profundities of The Matrix, I didn’t hear anyone laughing during his final, dreadful interview with “Hank,” his undercover handler, or at his last, desperate ride with Donna, his sometime girlfriend and now devastated baby-sitter.