Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.

Keanu Reeves has had a varied career, both in terms of success and the roles he has chosen. He switches from stoner to action star to romantic lead, often forming some combination of the three. Reeves’s appeal over the years is his ability to evoke sympathy. You want good things to happen to most of his characters, no matter if they are “good” or not. For me, no other role exhibits this quality as much as Bob Arctor from A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s trippy rotoscoped-animation adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel about the dystopian police state created by rampant drug use and overall paranoia.

Poignant Reeves

The unfair (and overused) joke about Reeves’s acting can be summed up with one word: “Whoa.” Yes, he has uttered the word plenty of times throughout his career (here’s the video to prove it), and he even turned it into an art form in The Matrix. But it’s ridiculous to define his career by this awe- and/or dumbstruck utterance. While his latest success with the John Wick series has put a lot of those “whoa” memories to bed, his earlier role as Arctor in A Scanner Darkly served up a depressing, and darkly funny, possible fate for the type of goofy stoner character that made him famous. 

Arctor is certainly a stoner, and the effects that Substance D (the fictional drug that has led to widespread addiction) have on him and his “friends” lead to some genuinely goofy and funny moments throughout the film. But there are many more moments that exemplify permanent brain damage. Arctor is an undercover cop who has become addicted to D in order to infiltrate a group of addicts and find the drug’s primary supplier. His addiction, and the damage it has caused to his brain, make it less and less clear who Arctor really is and what he is actually doing. 

Based on that description, it’s easy to view Arctor as a depressing representation of what happens to a drug addict, but there is a surprising amount of humor to Reeves’s performance as well. Reeves may be famous comedically for portraying over-the-top lunkheads like Ted “Theodore” Logan, but his real wheelhouse is being a smartass. (Think of the look on Reeves’s face in The Matrix when he gives Agent Smith the finger right after telling him he was going to do so.) Despite the ultimate seriousness of A Scanner Darkly, there are plenty of moments early on when Reeves gets to simply fuck with his stoned roommates. My favorite moment is when Arctor decides to go all in on messing with Robert Downey, Jr.’s character about how many gears are on a bike he just purchased. Being a smartass is a tightrope walk between funny and annoying, but Reeves is able to inject just enough sincerity into his performance that you feel like you’re in on the joke with him. 

The humor conveyed by Reeves makes his character likable, which is always important but even more so in this film. Arctor’s backstory (at least the one he believes for most of the film) is that he was once a family man, and a literal bump to the head woke him up and made him realize he wanted nothing to do with that life. Normally, abandoning a family will make me hate a character, and while I still find Arctor’s actions terrible, I can’t help but like the guy (especially once it’s revealed that he may have never even had a family). 

This can all be chalked up to Reeves’s natural charisma, but the style of A Scanner Darkly makes it even more impressive. Rotoscoping may not be traditional animation because rather than just providing voiceover, the actors are actually filmed — with animation then overlaying those images. But it still takes something special to transcend the style and evoke emotion from the audience. Even then, this is still a largely vocal performance for Reeves — not only because he provides narration at a few points in the film but because Arctor is stoned most of the time, and stoned faces are not very emotive. 

Reeves is able to convey immense sadness in his voice, and that, coupled with the very depressing (yet hopeful) ending of the film, make this the only Reeves performance to produce tears from me. So many times throughout the film, Reeves gives these melancholy soliloquies that grind the film to a halt (in a good way) and make you confront the sad reality of a drug addict. As Arctor’s brain damage progresses, these moments become more and more profound, as they are delivered from a man who has become a kind of zombie as an unwitting soldier in the war on drugs. 

Reeves’s final line (“I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field. A present for my friends … at Thanksgiving.”) and the In Memoriam from Philip K. Dick (which includes Dick himself) that immediately follows brings me to tears every time. Keanu Reeves can be dumb and/or cool. Everyone knows that, but he can also be heartbreakingly tragic. A Scanner Darkly is proof of that.

Random Thoughts / Favorite Quotes

The revelation that New Path is providing both the drugs and the cure for addiction is depressingly similar to the real opioid epidemic in America. Except in the dystopia of this film, people are actively trying to take New Path down. In our darker reality, it was all done in the open with barely any repercussions for those responsible. Hell, at least New Path was doing it in secret …

Rory Cochrane is a perfect choice to play a drug addict being tormented by hallucinatory bugs.

“I got a lot of problems no one else has.”

“I kind of have to tip my hat to any entity that can bring so much integrity to evil.”

Robert Downey, Jr. might be the worst possible person to have to talk to while high.

The surveillance state predicted by this film is fairly realistic except that we’ve mostly done it to ourselves through our cell phone and social media use.

“Yeah, dude. Don’t blame the drugs.”

This is easily one of Woody Harrelson’s funniest performances.

And Downey, Jr.’s, too. Wynona Ryder is great, as well, though her performance is much more dramatic than comedic. I just feel like this movie has been forgotten, and it features top-tier performances from all involved. 

“Before Leonardo hit his Elvis stage.” So DiCaprio gets fat in this future.

“And what were you doing while I was being escorted by dead relatives to the bright light? Jacking off?”

Holy shit, Alex Jones is in this movie! He gets tased and taken away in an unmarked van by federal agents, which I’m sure is a fantasy of his. Unfortunately, this type of thing is actually happening to people now. Once again, our reality is darker. While people like Alex Jones should be removed from society, he gets to keep his freedom while those protesting for change are the ones taken away. You’re not supposed to want the dystopian future presented in sci-fi movies, are you?

As for Jones being in this movie, apparently Linklater came across him in Austin years ago and found him entertaining. Here are Linklater’s thoughts on Jones now.

“The next thing he knew, a creature from between dimensions was standing beside his bed, looking down at him disapprovingly.”

Freck’s death is possibly the funniest suicide scene in movie history, especially since it’s revealed that he’s possibly still alive at the end. I know he is definitely at New Path at the end, but that scene appears to be from Arctor’s perspective and we cannot trust what he sees.

This viewing is the first time I noticed that one of the doctors examining Arctor tells him to get tiny blue flowers for Donna, which is what he does at the end. He’s been coached by multiple people to lead him to the farm at the end so he can reveal what New Path is doing.

“The dead should, if possible, serve the purposes of the living.”

“I like air.”