Keanu Korner: The Matrix
Keanu Reeves is exactly what we need in the middle of a global pandemic. If his oeuvre proves anything—John Wick, Point Break, and of course, The Matrix—it’s that he’s the man to turn to in a crisis. And although the frenzy around his comforting brand of non-toxic masculinity seems to be once again waning, I’m here to make a pitch for the ongoing relevance of Keanu Reeves. Reeves is the ideal leading man for a number of reasons that culminate in an oddly irresistible sort of charm; he has always been handsome, for one, whether he’s fresh with the epicene beauty of youth early in his career or wearing the more dignified looks of middle age later on. But there’s more to it than that. Reeves has often been lambasted for appearing emotionless or stoic onscreen, but I would argue that there’s something about his impassivity that draws the audience in with a suggestion of something more mysterious below. After all, still waters run deep.
Reeves is perhaps less expressive than many other men in Hollywood, but he’s honest, and he’s uncomplicated. You can tell what he’s thinking from the smallest quirk of his mouth or twitch of his eyebrow. That he usually gives nothing away makes a myriad of microexpressions easier to spot. And his Sphinx-like calm allows us to project whatever we want onto him in a way that’s oddly reciprocal. We’re used to actors doing all the legwork for us, but Reeves has a way of transporting you into another world by dint of his passivity. He is what you want him to be; thus, you have to put a little effort into imagining what he might be able to offer you. Nowhere is that clearer than in the kingmaker of Keanu’s korpus—yes, that’s corpus with a ‘K’—The Matrix.
Much has been said about the metaphorical significance of the dystopian Matrix, but I am neither talented enough to rehash the old arguments with any sort of style nor interested in attempting to do so. What I think makes this movie special—and where my own opinion may differ from the ordinary ones about it—is Reeves’ performance, and the way in which his signature blankness and his malleability turn The Matrix into more than just a sci-fi flick. From the moment Reeves steps onscreen as Neo, a twitchy, reticent hacker with a distaste for authority, we can tell he’s not an average action star. He’s not blond or square jawed or in any way akin to Tom Cruise, but then again, he has his own rangy appeal. His lean physique and height certainly make all of his elaborate stunts more believable, and his strangely elven features make him all the more timeless. The Matrix is very much rooted in aesthetics from the turn of the millennium, but Reeves’ gimlet eyes and tousled hair are eternal.
But there’s more to Reeves beyond his build or the pedestrian factors of Hollywood sex appeal (though those undoubtedly have much to do with his continued success). There’s something about his demeanor—real and raw and less woodenly unflappable than his hypermasculine Hollywood counterparts—that makes him a true man for all seasons. It means that when he works with Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity, he’s cooperative and respectful, a true collaborator and a partner. He doesn’t try to possess or control her. Rather, he acknowledges her expertise and puts their shared talents to work to solve a larger problem.
When he has to save Morpheus, played with authoritative aplomb by Laurence Fishburne, Reeves as Neo is calm and resolute. There is none of the posturing you might see from a star like Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson, no trite and overconfident declarations that he’s the only one who can do it, no paternalistic minimizations of Trinity’s skills. There’s a sense that his mission has less to do with his ego and far more to do with what is right.
Reeves’ characteristic calm lends itself to this sort of action. His face is a tabula rasa onto which we might paint our own conception of a proper hero, whether that may be the egalitarian team player I have in mind or the stoic human weapon who habilely dodges bullets in carefully choreographed fight scenes that is a far more popular interpretation of what Reeves is doing here. He contains Whitman-esque multitudes, and it is up to the audience to tease them out for ourselves. Look one way, and he’s a male power fantasy, the Chosen One with a gun in one hand and a leather clad woman in the other. Look another way, and he’s more human than hero, the sleep-tousled young man waking up from a nasty dream at the beginning of the film or sputtering after a too-strong sip of homebrewed liquor with a teammate, a boyish grin creasing his face. Neither of these interpretations are wrong. That’s the beauty of Keanu Reeves—he’s an exercise in artful uncertainty.
There’s one more thing that makes The Matrix a good choice for a social-distancing movie night. It isn’t because it’s a prescient tale of greed or of dystopian technological overreach. What lies at the heart of The Matrix is not that humans are doomed or that there is no hope. On the contrary, the ragtag team at the center of this movie is an enduring reminder that at the end of all things, after war and famine and through near constant peril, people tend to stick together. We do not abandon each other, even when all seems lost. We find a way to carry on, with our burdens made lighter because we have chosen to share the weight.
And in a time like this, the thought that we are not entirely subject to the uncaring whims of the universe, that perhaps we can still carve out a safe space for ourselves if we remember to trust each other, that we might be strong enough to fight the coming battles if we do so side-by-side, is a very important one indeed.
So wash your hands, make some popcorn, and let the Reeves Renaissance—the Reevesaissance, if you will—distract you for a moment. And remember: the only way through the darkness is on a path that we can take together.