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In Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, which opened last Friday, Keanu Reeves plays a drug addict named Bob Arctor who daylights as an anti-drug agent called Fred. Bob/Fred speaks at a men's club in a "scramble suit," a futuristic form of camouflage that disguises the wearer not as someone else, but as everyone else at once. The agent introducing Bob's speech welcomes him with these words: "Let's hear it for the vague blur." It's a line lifted from Philip K. Dick's novel of transmuting identities, but it's also the perfect motto for Keanu Reeves' film career. Keanu himself is a vague blur, and never more so than in his most memorable roles: in the Matrix films, and now perfectly cast in A Scanner Darkly. No other actor could so beautifully serve as the site for the identity meltdown at the heart of Linklater's adaptation; it's a role that Reeves has, in his own inimitable way, been preparing for his entire career.
Right from the "dude-no-way" days of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Reeves has always been the baffled misfit, the lost soul in a disorienting labyrinth. His specialty is the addled wander—dark eyes a tad unfocused, perfectly formed mouth hanging just slightly slack. His simple, high-contrast face and long, floppy body seem drawn in a few brush strokes by a Japanese cartoonist. His inexpressive baritone voice has a could-be-from-anywhere quality (in fact, the part-English, part-Chinese-and-Hawaiian Keanu was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in Canada). Keanu is not just blurry within movies; he's blurry within his career, amiably wandering from romantic drama (A Walk in the Clouds, The Lake House) to die-hard action (Speed, The Matrix) to stoner comedy (the Bill and Ted movies, Parenthood).
Critics often interpret Keanu's blurriness as a general inability to act. And not without reason: Certainly he never disappears into his roles like, say, Ben Kingsley, and given a meaty speaking part (like that of the villain Don John in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing), he can come off as amateurish and dim. But Keanu's best directors have found ways to exploit his cipherlike quality. One brilliant method, on display in this clip from the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix, is simply to limit how much Keanu has to say. Give the bulk of the dialogue, all the philosophical ramblings and spiritual hocus-pocus, to another character. Just let Keanu affirm it thusly: "There is no spoon." The let-somebody-else-talk technique serves a dual purpose: It shuts Keanu up, and it adds to his sphinxlike mystique. After all, if Neo needs only four words to comprehend the ultimate nature of reality, he must indeed be the One.
Blurriness has also made Keanu into something of a Hollywood utility player. What other actor could have played the son of Satan (The Devil's Advocate), the Christ-like redeemer of humanity (the Matrix trilogy), and the Buddha himself (Little Buddha)? In that Bernardo Bertolucci film, one of the most luscious clunkers of all time, Keanu gazes deep into a reflecting pond to come face to face with his own alter ego. Having mortified himself for a lifetime to achieve enlightenment, he finds nothing at the center of his spiritual labyrinth but the empty gaze of … another Keanu Reeves. But, like the spoon of The Matrix, this other self proves to be only an illusion. Of the three pillars of monotheism Keanu has played so far (only the Islamic ban on representation of Mohammed stands in the way of him being cast as the Prophet), the Buddha is perhaps the best-suited to his own personal iconography as an actor. Like the self in Buddhist philosophy, Keanu is less a person than an empty place-holder.
By way of proving that the most sublime Keanu is a near-silent Keanu, I point you to this moment in Point Break (surely the greatest thriller ever about surfing detectives) in which Keanu rises, Buddha-like, above the angry rantings of his superior officer with a single oracular utterance. Indeed, it's often been observed that Keanu Reeves is less an actor than a reactor. But, like the stolen hydrogen-powered device in the 1996 Keanu vehicleChain Reaction, he can be a reactor of unexpected force and power. This is how the androgynous Keanu has succeeded for more than a decade as an action star. It's Keanu's very passivity, his unflappable Zen emptiness, that makes him a compellingly quiet and focused hero. Somehow you believe he could stay calm while defusing a bomb on the underside of a moving bus, or even halt a bullet using only his mind.
In this clip from a cheapie fan doc called Keanu Reeves: Journey to Success—God, I love Netflix—the director ofSpeed, Jan de Bont, stupidly cites this passive quality as his reason not to cast Keanu in Speed II. But the joke's on you, Jan (if indeed it was you who rejected Keanu and not the other way around). Jason Patric's Method intensity was lost on summer blockbuster audiences, and Speed II was a notorious, nearly career-ruining disaster. Keanu's first name comes from a Hawaiian phrase that's often poetically overtranslated as "a cool breeze over the mountains." I much prefer the literal translation, which apparently means something more like "the coolness." As A Scanner Darkly proves, Keanu is the Coolness—passive blankness, leaden line delivery, and all. Let's hear it for the vague blur.