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.
For an actor with such a distinct appeal, Keanu Reeves has been miscast an alarming amount of times throughout his career. In Reeves’ case, the traditional notion of range does not a good actor make; when well employed, Reeves has embodied a humbler, more earnest variation of the surfer-bro charms upon which his other peers like Matthew McConaughey have capitalized. Whereas McConaughey sparked a career resurgence in 2013 playing against type, such a fate seems unlikely for Reeves. Characters such as Point Break’s Johnny Utah or (obviously) Neo in The Matrix have achieved iconic status partly because Reeves seems to be channeling his real-life persona into someone else’s words.
So it’s rather unfortunate when a filmmaker as gifted as Francis Ford Coppola misuses Reeves so egregiously to play a prim Englishman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or to see him pop up five years later as an aw-shucks Southern attorney in The Devil’s Advocate. Lesson being: Don’t cast Reeves in your high-profile studio release if you don’t understand why he’s so awesome in the first place. But in 1991, director Gus Van Sant, who was at the peak of his powers in between barn-burning indie dramas Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For (let’s, uh, just forget Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which is at the very least a commendable catastrophe), placed Reeves alongside River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho for one of the most complex roles of the actor’s career — his youthful confidence combined with the somber determination of his later work to create a character at a crossroads between hedonism and obedience.
Idaho is essential queer art relative to the films of Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) or the novels of Dennis Cooper (The Sluts) — worlds of lonely male hustlers, empty sex and desperate vagrants. And yet the Idaho Van Sant depicts here (not to mention sequences set in Portland, Seattle and Rome) isn’t quite as unforgiving to its outsiders. Sure, Reeves’ character, Scott Favor, may not always provide the emotional support that his companion / fellow prostitute Mike Waters (Phoenix) needs, but their friendship is what gives the movie an empathetic core in a setting where one would least expect that.
Reeves’ blissed-out elegance often makes a perfect foil for his more hyperactive co-leads, be it Point Break’s Patrick Swayze or Bill & Ted’s Alex Winter. In Idaho, his swagger is used as an anchor to keep Phoenix’s deeply damaged protagonist from falling out of orbit entirely. Scott is a character who drifts between a life of immense privilege and total degeneracy. Eschewing the opportunities presented by his father, the mayor of Portland, Scott (with the knowledge he’ll inherit a small fortune upon turning 21) lives in squalor for kicks, selling his body to guys or girls — whatever pays. Mike, on the other hand, is more like a wounded puppy — helpless (he suffers from stress-induced narcolepsy) and longing for someone’s love. His raw vulnerability is a stark contrast to Scott’s fun-loving bravado.
Deep into the film’s second act, there’s a heartbreaking scene that defines the pair’s relationship. On their way to visit Mike’s brother in Idaho, the two sit around a campfire and Mike quietly confesses his love to Scott. Scott replies that two men can’t really love each other and that he only sleeps with guys for money. “I love you, and you don’t pay me,” Mike says despondently, “I really wanna kiss you, man.” Scott declines but nonetheless pulls Mike in and holds him as they fall asleep.
This sequence beautifully illustrates the strengths of both the lead’s performances. But while Phoenix’s vulnerability here is searing and often the most talked-about, it couldn’t work without the subtlety Reeves brings. Mike doesn’t have the luxury to just shrug off his homosexuality to avoid any messy feelings, but Scott’s aloofness can’t entirely mask that his feelings towards Mike don’t simply boil down to a rich kid’s social experiment. It’s among the most tender scenes in Van Sant’s filmography and no doubt worthy of a highlight reel for Reeves.
One also cannot talk about Reeves in Idaho without bringing up the extremely literal parallels between Scott and Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, from which the screenplay occasionally lifts soliloquies for its characters to speak. Scott’s character arc is a direct mirror of Shakespeare’s King Henry, deliberately rejecting his familial responsibilities to make his return to grace that much more impressive to his father.
There are two extended sequences in Idaho wherein Reeves is saddled with two pivotal monologues adapted from the Bard, and his character’s playful arrogance suits the language far better here than it did in his other ill-fated attempt a couple years later in Much Ado About Nothing. The final sequence, in which he turns down his former junkie/hustler mentor, Bob (a stand-in for Henry’s Falstaff), is astonishing not just in the way cinematographers Eric Edwards and John Campbell use shallow depth of field to focus on Reeves’ face, his back turned to the out-of-focus people from his past who are no longer useful to him, but in the fact Reeves actually pulls off the grandiose dialogue.
Few directors are fortunate to pull off the kind of run Van Sant had in the ’90s, and looking at some of the actors he cast in central roles during this period (Matt Dillon in particular comes to mind), Reeves has that balance of macho and sensitive that helped the best of those films soar. My Own Private Idaho may not be the first (or second … or third) movie to come to mind when considering Reeves’ finest performances (although it should), but it’s a fine display of an unlikely filmmaker knowing exactly how to use one of our most uniquely gifted performers.