Keanu Reeves: The Last Great Movie Star

With a name less like a one-two punch and more like a little poem of introduction, Keanu Reeves has always been distinctive. The true test of a Movie Star is the ability to be known by only one name—Bruce, George, Leo, Johnny—and there is no name more evocative than “Keanu”. Like it’s wearer it is at once cool and mysterious, singular and offbeat. Keanu—the name and Movie Star—has such presence in pop culture that he can carry an entire movie as a concept. Keanu Reeves is one of the most enduring actors of the contemporary era, and a celebrity who has reached near-mythic proportions, universally beloved and more admired than ever, thanks to some post-John Wick revisionism. And where so many of his fellow Movie Stars have stumbled and lost stature, Reeves remains, the coolest, most unknowable, most untouchable—the last great Movie Star.

  1. The Movie Star Who Wasn’t

Keanu Reeves has done something almost unheard of these days—off nothing more than the promise of “Keanu Reeves kills everyone”—and that’s launch an original franchise. Based on nothing and inspired by no one, John Wick is an original idea that found its audience the old-fashioned way, over time, as word of mouth spread its reputation far and wide. The result? John Wick: Chapter 2 more than doubled the take of the first installment. Taken turned out to be a case of diminishing returns, and besides, it launched in 2009, when we thought we still had capital-letter Movie Stars. (We were so innocent in 2009, we didn’t yet know that Johnny Depp had been sucked into the scarf dimension.) But in 2014, when we were hard and jaded, Keanu Reeves brought us John Wick, and reminded us what an enduring Movie Star can do.

Be totally rad.
Be totally rad.

But somehow in the capital-letter star conversation Reeves’ name never comes up. We talk about Ben and Matt and George, about Johnny and Brad and whether or not Chris Pratt will ever, but we NEVER talk about Keanu. Despite inspiring one of the most pervasive memes, and maintaining a bullet-proof popularity that has weathered several cycles through the Hollywood grinder, Reeves has avoided the social media spill and 24-hour news cycle that has destroyed the celebrity personas of his peers.

And that allows him to do something none of his peers have: Maintain his mystique. Reeves has always been noted for his air of mystery—the unknowable other, the quiet counterpart who ceded attention and headlines to the likes of Johnny and Leo. And now, when they can’t escape their public branding, Reeves maintains his aura of silence and distance, as he has always done. He is undeniably a capital-letter star, but compared to the frequency with which we hear from the likes of Brad and Ben and Johnny, Keanu Reeves is a ghost.

Who might also be a vampire.
Who might also be a vampire.
  1. A Quality of Suggestive Sadness

Watch enough of Reeves’ movies in short order and something will leap out: His characters are all sad. In a fantastic essay assessing his career as an underappreciated actor, Angelica Jade Bastién identifies loneliness as a “thematic preoccupation” of Reeves’. I add that Reeves has a knack for not only inhabiting loneliness but also playing the internalized sadness of a character. All of the traits Bastién details, from his characters’ stillness to their loneliness to their relative virility and vulnerability, have their roots in a sublimated sadness uniting his entire repertoire. Even Ted “Theodore” Logan is sad in the way of sons disappointing to and disappointed by their fathers.

When military school is a legit threat.
When military school is a legit threat.

This sadness isn’t limited to performance, though, it’s an integral part of Reeves’ celebrity persona. There’s “Sad Keanu”, of course, and Reeves’ own ironically mopey children’s book, Ode to Happiness, but there is also an assumption on the public’s part that Keanu Reeves IS sad. That comes from an overlap of several factors, including his pantheon of sad characters, his sort of passively sad resting face, and, of course, the scar of personal tragedy—a stillborn child, followed by the death of that child’s mother—that has largely faded from public view but lingers in the collective consciousness as a vague impression that he is sad, or was, once.

Pictured: Unutterable despair.
Pictured: Unutterable despair.

But whether he is or isn’t actually sad is beside the point. (Although he certainly does not come across that way in interviews, where his chill-dude cool evaporates quickly in exuberant outbursts that, frankly, paint Reeves as a closet dork.) What matters is that Reeves carries a kind of suggestive sadness, that his trademark Movie Star Mystique, which has endured for decades and outlived almost every other male Movie Star from his era, comes with a sort of warning label. His sadness, real or assumed, acts as a repellent. It has dug a moat around him, repelling all but the most shameless prying, inoculating him against gossip and protecting him from exposure. It has made him into the Movie Star to be protected, the one we handle most carefully.

III. The Existential Sex Symbol

Once again turning to Angelica Jade Bastién, Reeves “marries typically masculine and feminine qualities”. This is the true beginning of his mystique, where his almost indescribable beauty merges with that subliminal sadness and renders him mysterious. That’s the number one descriptor of Keanu Reeves: Mysterious. And that’s a word most often associated with cats and women—how many men do you really hear described as “mysterious” that aren’t international espionage agents? But Reeves is always and forever mysterious.

Like this cat.
Like this cat.

And for all that he ticks the typical hetero-normative boxes—physically imposing, dates women, rides motorcycles—Reeves’ sex appeal isn’t especially earthy. If anything he exists on Tilda Swinton’s bandwidth, that otherworldly frequency we can’t quite receive. They are beautiful creatures, and Reeves’ beauty, like Swinton’s, renders him as a kind of proto-androgyne. Which isn’t to say that Reeves’ isn’t sexy, just that his sex appeal isn’t relevant. Sex appeal is an essential part of the male Movie Star’s kit, but Reeves, who has always stood apart from that pack, doesn’t really need it to be distinctive. He’s got his mystery, after all, and that indelible impression of sadness.

They're here to study us.
They’re here to study us.

Reeves’ appeal endures because it doesn’t rely on the physical but the metaphysical, a kind of existential sex appeal that transcends era and gender. His is the appeal of the locked door, the mystery we choose not to solve. He has survived where so many other Movie Stars haven’t because he has never tried to reinvent himself. He is today as he was in 1999, in 1991, in 1989. His stature in pop culture has grown over the decades, carrying him even through the fallow years of bad movies and misfires, because of that unchanging quality. Reeves is as he always was, and we have come to count on him for that.

thumbs-up

The success of John Wick is flavored with relief, not just that “Reeves is back!” but that he remains the Movie Star we’ve always known. It’s still him, we sigh, and embrace him in his FOURTH decade of Movie Stardom. We once took the presence of Movie Stars for granted, but as exposure has diminished so many of his peers—and effectively prevented the forming of a new generation of capital-letter stars—Reeves is a constant, distant and mysterious, seemingly untouched by time and unchanged by circumstance. His Zen calm and puzzle-box personality defy conventional celebrity coding and set him apart, a singularity even within this rarified sphere. He is, simply, Keanu.

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10 thoughts on “Keanu Reeves: The Last Great Movie Star

  1. I always have thought of Keanu as a one note actor, but I generally like the note he plays. He always comes off as earnest, but not necessarily a pleaser or, alternately, better than thou.

    1. Oh, I don’t know. I think he has been very sad, but maybe he’s not quite that sad these days. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, though. The idea that he’s sad has become a cornerstone of his celebrity.

  2. Susanne

    This is a very perceptive essay. You, along with Bastien, have really captured the enigma that is Keanu. For thirty years he has been able to hide in plain sight, to work constantly, to live his life, and yet to remain unknowable. No scandals, no oversharing, no begging for attention. For all these reasons, not to mention the indelible characters he has created, he will always be my favorite actor. Thanks for the article.

  3. Rebeca

    Sarah, do you like The Devil’s Advocate?

    Even though it’s not an action film, I feel it makes good use of Keanu’s mystique and physicality, and that he was pretty convincing in the courtroom scenes.

    PS: Totally agree with the Constantine tag.

    1. Well it’s a pretty ridiculous movie, but he is a good anchor for the ridiculous because of his quality of stillness. He grounds the silliness that way. It definitely works out better in The Matrix, Constantine, and John Wick, but Devil’s Advocate is one of those enjoyably bad movies. I don’t even call it a guilty pleasure because there’s nothing guilty about liking a dumb but efficiently entertaining movie.

  4. Nonennui

    Can we all take a moment to appreciate how the still/sad/mystery that you speak of has also rendered him virtually impervious to legitimate criticism of his acting? CatNISS commented above how he’s perceived as “one note” (and what a note). But I’ve straight up seen him compared to a piece of wood and he’s the only actor I can think of other than William Shatner who–if not outright celebrated for it–is at least given a pass with an indulgent chuckle. Critics can argue the relative merits of his acting (or lack thereof) but their words seem completely removed from the audience’s ability to still enjoy watching him. The sh*t doesn’t stick.

    Also: Constantine, all day every day.

    1. There has been a lot of Keanu revisionism, specifically post-John Wick, because people are finally appreciating what he does. He has a specific talent–that stillness or “blankness”–and while he doesn’t have the biggest range, no one is better at that curious stillness than him, and people LOVE his screen presence. That stillness allows audiences to buy into otherwise ridiculous premises, like, he’s taking this seriously, so we should, too. John Wick doesn’t work nearly so well without him, nor does The Matrix, and Constantine doesn’t work at all. So yeah, that shit doesn’t stick, but I think that’s largely because he isn’t a bad actor. He’s just a highly specific kind of actor, but when you put him in the right stuff, no one is doing what he does as well as he does.

      1. This discussion reminds me that Kyra Sedgewick once said that she loved Shakespeare because his words allowed her the full expression of the feelings of that character compared to most acting dialogue. I am now pondering whether Keanu’s characters seem “still” or “blank” because they haven’t found the appropriate words to match the magnitude and depth of their thoughts and feelings. Thus Keanu’s words seem wooden because they are inadequate. His characters never are truly vapid or stupid. Even Ted Logan had his wisdom.

      2. I just don’t hold with the notion that he’s a wooden or stiff actor. I just think he’s a very specific kind of actor who isn’t to everyone’s tastes. (Although it’s worth pointing out that from the beginning of his career, some of the best filmmakers in the world have gravitated to him, so I feel like the filmmakers have always known.) I think the stillness comes from his instinct to underplay most moments, and he isn’t a flashy performer. Body transformation has never been his thing, he hasn’t had a Revenant suffering moment, he never talks about how torturous or difficult his process is. He seems to shrug off all the trappings of acting in a way that makes it easy to accuse him of just playing himself, because he always looks the same and his style doesn’t change regardless of genre or role type. But his unchanging quality is what audiences love about him. We can count on Keanu to always be Keanu, in a way that transcends acting and is more about his reliability as a performer in movies people enjoy. Keanu’s in this? It’s at least worth checking out. (Which is how I ended up seeing John Wick in the first place.)

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