Keanu Reeves is a Most Excellent Asshole

Keanu Reeves is having a most excellent summer. Shortly after the pulpy sci-fi dud Replicas drifted through American theaters barely noticed, like a silent fart, Reeves has bounced back into audiences’ good graces with a triple onslaught of well-loved features. Between his starring roles in the increasingly popular action series John Wick 3 and his bit-part stunt-casting in Toy Story 4 & the straight-to-Netflix romcom Always Be My Maybe, it’s been a veritable Summer of Keanu. An actor that was one widely derided as being a one-note, rangeless goofball (especially in his earliest castings in period dramas) is finally getting his due as a loveable, enigmatic screen presence that’s been putting in great work in risky projects for three decades now – an action star of the people.

All of this Keanu love has spilled over from adoration of his work into a rhapsodic appreciation of his real-life persona. This is the year Keanu was officially declared to be The Internet’s Boyfriend, with unusually positive online warmth expressed for how often he works with female directors, how respectful he is of women’s personal space during photo ops, and his loyalty to his martial arts collaborators from his earliest days as an action star. Whatever affection we felt for the endlessly watchable goofball in the relatively ancient days of the Sad Keanu meme has now built to a raging forest fire of online lust & obsession, to the point where we’re even intently listening to his personal philosophy on Death & The Afterlife. You can feel it here locally too, where set photos of a (newly beardless) Keanu during local shoots for Bill & Ted Face the Music has people vibrating with pure love for him (when not concerned about his safety running around in the New Orleans summer heat).

The only downside to all this pure, gushing Keanu love is that it emphasizes how valuable he is as an aloof West Coast heartthrob with an adorable stoner demeanor. Part of the reason we think of Keanu Reeves as a one-note actor is because his early success as Ted Theodore Logan forever typecast him as an adorable bimbo. He’s gradually been able to divert that loveably aloof screen presence into an unlikely career as an action star, but it’s not the only mode Keanu Reeves can play. In fact, some of his most effective, memorable turns onscreen have been against type as monstrous, unrepentant assholes. By all accounts, Keanu Reeves is a wonderful, kind, thoughtful person in real life. He can be a world-class villain when we set him loose onscreen, though, and it’s a shame he doesn’t have the opportunity more often.

Listed below are five stand-out roles where Keanu Reeves excelled at playing a garbage human being, despite his loveable real-life persona. There weren’t many options to choose from (especially if you don’t include grey area selections like his unscrupulous lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate or his adulterous DJ dad in Knock Knock). I’m also ashamed to admit that I didn’t seek out personal blindspots like Much Ado About Nothing (in which he plays a dastardly rogue) and The Watcher (in which he plays a serial killer) before writing this. Still, I believe this quick list of villains Keanu Reeves characters can alone serve as proof that The Internet’s Boyfriend can be an effective, chilling creep when given the chance. He’s more than just a pretty face and a kind stoner-philosopher soul. The man has range. He can be a total asshole.

1. The Neon Demon (2016) – Keanu’s vilest scumbag might be his bit role and Nicolas Winding Refn’s fashion-world art-horror satire. In the film he plays an unforgivable sleazy motel manager in the dingiest corner of LA, preying on the underage runaways who hide away from their parents & obligations while chasing dreams of being a star. There aren’t many things in this world that can make Keanu Reeves grotesque in our adoring eyes, but hearing him advertise access to a young girl’s body as “Real Lolita Shit” will just about do it.

2. The Gift (2000) – The only title I can conjure where Keanu’s anywhere near as despicable as he is in The Neon Demon is his turn as an abusive husband in Sam Raimi’s psychic-visions murder mystery The Gift. He’s powerfully despicable as an alcoholic wife-beater in this sweaty, supernatural thriller. Plus, you get the added bonus of seeing him play a caricature of poor Southerners so broad it would feel at home in an (uncharacteristically dark) SNL sketch.

3. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) – One of the most conveniently concise visualizations you’re likely to see of Keanu acting against type in these villain roles is the one where he gets to villainize himself. In the unhinged, absurdist sequel to the popular 80s time-travel comedy, Keanu plays both Ted Logan and his evil robot doppelganger, who kills the “real” Ted early in the first act. It’s remarkable to watch how easily Keanu curdles Ted’s mannerisms into something so, so very punchable in the dual role (but not too remarkable if you keep in mind the real Bill & Ted’s alarming comfort with homophobic slurs).

4. The Bad Batch (2016) – I wasn’t especially in love with Anna Lili Amapour’s daylight cannibal horror when I reviewed it, but Keanu’s role as the film’s big-bad does stand out as one of its highlights. In the film, he plays a Jim Jones-style cult leader who exploits the devotion of his followers for sexual satisfaction & greedy financial gain. It’s terrifying to think about, since the real-life Keanu could easily rope us all into a desert-dwelling drug cult if he really wanted to. Easy.

5. Always Be My Maybe (2019) – Like with The Bad Batch, I had major problems with the tone & structure of this straight-to-Netflix romcom – which was shot & edited with all the auteurist passion of an overlit Burger King commercial. Still, it’s worth watching for Keanu Reeves’s stuntcasting as “Keanu Reeves,” an extensive cameo where he mercilessly makes fun of his own public persona by making himself out to be an out-of-touch, ultra-wealthy douchebag. Yes, Keanu is The Internet’s Boyfriend, but like most boyfriends he has the capacity to be a total tool.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

The Gift (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

In a lot of ways The Gift is a tricky film to review. Due to its suspense thriller genre, it’s at the very least difficult to discuss too much of the film’s plot without ruining the surprise of some of its bigger twists, so I’ll try to tread lightly there. What’s even more complicated about this thriller in particular, though, is that I enjoyed the majority of its run time, but the last couple of narrative twists in the concluding few minutes left me feeling deeply uneasy. So much of The Gift works, but the little that doesn’t makes a huge, uncomfortable impact. If the overall quality of a thriller relies on the strength of its twists, it’s tempting to allow the last few minutes of The Gift poison the generally likable film that precedes them, but that feels more than a little unfair to me.

Here’s a short list of things that work in The Gift: the imagery, the tone, the tension, the acting, and the brutal reflection on how cycles of teenage bullying don’t stop on graduation day. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to the performances from the three leads. Joel Edgerton (who also writes & directs here) brings the quiet menace of an abused, but sadly loyal puppy dog on the verge of biting back to his role as the film’s would-be menace, Gordo. Rebecca Hall affords an unusual amount of intellectual competence & believable fragility to her role as the Typical Horror Movie Victim, Robyn. Jason Bateman carries most of the weight here, though, nimbly navigating a role that requires him both to be a befuddled everyman & (as the film’s advertising already spoiled, freeing my hands here) a vile, immature highschool bully that never outgrew his abusive ways. Bateman’s turn as Simon truly is the film’s bread & butter, calling into question the means by which a teenage bully can translate their brutality into adult situations, namely in professional & domestic arenas.

Most of The Gift unravels the power dynamics of Simon’s & Gordo’s shared past through Robyn’s perspective, which is where the film shines brightest. There’s a stark simplicity to the movie’s visual palette that makes for a sleek-looking thriller. Sliced apples, pills in a kitchen sink, traditional horror film reds emanating from brake lights, and a sly reference to The Shining (there’s a hospital room numbered 237) all overpower the film’s cheaper elements, like last minute plot twists & dog-exploiting jump scares. It’s when the perspective shifts from Robyn’s POV to Simon’s in the third act that The Gift wavers a bit. It’s difficult to determine if the audience is supposed to empathize with the lifelong bully in the final half hour or indulge in his comeuppance, but honestly neither effect is all that satisfying, so it ultimately doesn’t matter.

I’m firmly on the fence with how all of The Gift‘s individual elements play out in its conclusion, but there’s plenty to enjoy in each moving part as isolated components (especially in the visual starkness & the effective performances from its three leads) before they’re uncomfortably misused. I liked most of the film, but I definitely left the theater with a lingering, bitter taste in my mouth, which I guess isn’t the worst way a movie can affect you, all things considered. It’s unlikely that The Gift will have much box office staying power or be making any Best of 2015 lists as the year winds down, but it does have enough going for it that it could potentially make for some decent Netflix viewing whenever someone’s in the mood for a mostly well-executed thriller starring a bitterly unlikable Michael Bluth. There are certainly worse fates than that.

-Brandon Ledet