From Richard Linklater to Gus Van Sant: Keanu Reeves’ 15 best film performances
“Grief changes shape, but it never ends.”—Keanu Reeves
Canadian actor Keanu Reeves has become one of the biggest names in the industry, with extremely popular roles in films like The Matrix trilogy and the John Wick series. He has won three MTV Movie Awards and received two Best Actor nominations at the Saturn Awards. His acclaim doesn’t end there, Reeves has also been nominated twice for a People’s Choice Award for his performance in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). Now, he is set to portray the character of Johnny Silverhand in the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.
Reeves was involved in theatre and film productions since he was a child because his step-father, Paul Aaron, was a leading Broadway and Hollywood director. In 1984, Reeves was a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation youth television program Going Great. That same year, he made his acting debut in an episode of the television series, called Hangin’ In. His breakthrough role came in 1986 when he was cast in Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and he delivered a serious, powerful performance.
On his 56th birthday, we take a look back at some of the best film performances of Keanu Reeves.
Keanu Reeves’ 15 best films:
15. Thumbsucker (Mike Mills – 2005)
Based on a Walter Kirn novel, Mike Mills’ 2005 coming-of-age comedy is about a teenager, Justin Cobb (played by Lou Taylor Pucci), who is still addicted to sucking his thumb. Reeves shines in the role of Justin’s dentist, Dr. Perry Lyman, who has extensive knowledge about orthodontics as well as life.
“Working on Thumbsucker was great with a wonderful cast and a great role. I mean the working experience was great,” Reeves said previously. “To go to work on something that one has a feeling for and believes in like I do and did for Thumbsucker is a really good day and the story I got to tell as Perry Lyman, is kind of a tent pole that the film hangs on. That’s one of the better days that I get to do that as an artist.”
14. Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears – 1988)
Perhaps the most famous of the film adaptations of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, Reeves plays the role of Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny in this 1988 film. He is a pawn in the cruel game that two rich and bored aristocrats (played by John Malkovich and Glenn Close) play. Reeves holds his own in the presence of such top actors.
Reeves recalled, “When I auditioned for these English dudes, I’d been out biking and had on holey pants and these big boots. I was coming on like Stanley Kowalski.”
13. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Rebecca Miller – 2009)
Although the focus of this film is Robin Wright’s character, a woman navigating a difficult suburban life with intelligence and charm, Reeves shows up later as the younger guy who is a perfect fit for Pippa Lee. Their on-screen chemistry is compelling and Keanu Reeves makes a subtle and interesting romantic lead.
Reeves explained why he was drawn to the project, “Yeah, it was working with Rebecca Miller and working with Robin Wright and reading the book and the screenplay and playing Chris. He’s kind of this character who has about three or four different responsibilities in the piece and I was trying to achieve those.”
Adding, “He’s kind of a friend, he’s the weird neighbour guy, he’s (in a way) a lover. So I got to play three roles in one, so that was kind of exciting.”
12. The Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford – 1997)
The main attraction of Taylor Hackford’s 1997 film is Al Pacino as a New York lawyer/embodiment of Satan himself but Reeves’ character, Kevin Lomax, is actually the protagonist. He is a new hire at a top law firm who realizes that things aren’t as they seem and that he is in over his head.
“I spent a lot of time going to court, and for the physicality of the piece, went to the gym and took movement classes. I met with a lot of defence attorneys to study more about technique, and trying to implement those techniques in the scenes,” said Reeves, while speaking about his approach.
The actor also recalled doing “a lot of interior work. The guy’s a shark, as well as someone who’s in conflict. That was one of the things Taylor Hackford [director] wanted to get through: he was both light and dark, not to mention aggressive. To play someone like that was a challenge and fun.”
11. Parenthood (Ron Howard – 1989)
Ron Howard‘s ensemble comedy focused on the (mis)adventures of the Buckman family and Reeves really shines in it. Against her mother’s (played by Dianne Wiest) wishes, Julie (played by Martha Plimpton) has married her boyfriend Tod (played by Reeves) and gotten pregnant. However, Tod convinces his mother-in-law that he is mature and capable with some hilarious and human moments.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Dianne Wiest for Best Supporting Actress and Randy Newman for Best Song for I Love to See You Smile. It was also nominated by the American Film Institute for their “100 Years…100 Laughs series”.
10. Permanent Record (Marisa Silver – 1988)
Marisa Silver’s exploration of depression and friendship features Keanu Reeves as Chris, a shy loner who struggles to deal with the suicide of his best friend. He decides to keep his friend’s legacy alive by working on his projects and picking up the fragments of a life lost.
Although the audience has to sift through a lot of the platitudes of the genre, Silver actually presents an honest and powerful story. Reeves delivers a fantastic performance as Chris.
9. Bill & TedSeries (Multiple Directors – 1989, 1991, 2020)
Bill (played by Alex Winter) and Ted (played by Keanu Reeves) are high school friends who are in a band and find themselves tangled in normal as well as surreal problems. Reeves shows a surprisingly sunny side to his performance while portraying an endearingly clueless teenager, trying to figure it all out.
While speaking about the cult status of the first film, Reeves said, “I think there’s an originality to it—the script, the words and the voices of these characters that had a friendship, a sincerity and an indomitable will. They’re clever, there’s a lot of heart to them, they’re funny and unique.”
8. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow – 1991)
Set in the world of surfing, Reeves received very positive reviews for his performance as undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 thriller. He sets out to investigate a bunch of bank robberies committed by a gang of surfers, led by their charismatic leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).
Reeves reflected on the impact of the film, “All of the time, I run into people who are like, ‘Point Break!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s great, you know.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but that’s not what I meant.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, OK, but what do you mean?’ ‘I started jumping out of airplanes cause of Point Break. I started surfing because of Point Break.’ You know, it really changed people’s lives, just like it did mine.”
7. The Gift (Sam Raimi – 2000)
Sam Raimi’s 2000 mystery thriller wasn’t a commercial success but it did provide the platform for one of Keanu Reeves’ best performances. He plays an extremely unlikeable character who is an abusive husband but is unfairly accused of murder. He is malevolent but compellingly so.
“I wanted to make him human,” Reeves said of his character. “All of these people are trying to understand something that’s happened to them. They’ve been victimised by circumstance or events in their lives, and they’ve got to see Cate Blanchett’s character to try and understand themselves. And through not understanding, this violence occurs. I wanted to understand what happened to Donnie through that. He’s a damaged man… and, hopefully, he’s not just a special effect.”
6. Speed (Jan de Bont – 1994)
A rollercoaster of a film, Keanu Reeves stars as Jack Traven, an L.A. cop who is desperate to save the passengers on a local bus that is rigged with a bomb set to explode if the bus slows down below 50 mph. The chemistry he shares with passenger Annie Porter (played by Sandra Bullock) who has to drive the bus is palpable.
“I think there’s something that people respond to in the film in the sense that it feels so accessible and human, in a way,” the actor commented. “There’s a vulnerability to it. Having participated in that, and having had a great opportunity, and then to be here 20 years later, it feels like that came from a more innocent time.”
5. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant – 1991)
Based very loosely on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Gus Van Sant’s compelling drama follows the story of two friends Mike (played by River Phoenix) and Scott (played by Keanu Reeves) as they travel to find Mike’s mother. Keanu Reeves delivers a powerful performance as Scott, one that helped define his career.
Reeves believed in the universal appeal of the film, “I don’t feel that this story is a contemporary tale of the street. It’s not current in the places or language. The only way this story is contemporary is in a larger sense, in its emotions and perhaps what goes on inside of some people.”
4. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater – 2006)
Based on celebrated sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s eponymous 1977 novel, Richard Linklater’s 2006 effort uses rotoscoping techniques to create a truly special world that exists somewhere between euphoria and paranoia. Reeves plays a narcotics agent who struggles with addiction himself and is never really sure about his own identity.
“Great story. Great story for me. Great role. Important story. And it was the way we could get it done,” the actor said. “I find these films and the genre itself it’s questioning. It really kind of asking. It contextualizes and questions where we are, where will we be, what’s going on, who are we?”
3. River’s Edge (Tim Hunter – 1986)
Tim Hunter’s 1986 film features Reeves as a dead-end teenager whose friend tells him that he has killed his girlfriend. Reeves’ character is a moral and philosophical void who is unable to process the ramifications of the events unfolding around him but that ends up adding a brilliant element to Reeves’ performance.
Hunter recalled, “We also auditioned a ton of guys for Keanu’s part and couldn’t find anybody, but we were lucky in terms of timing. Keanu had had a few smaller parts in Canadian sports movies.
“He had come down to Hollywood for the first time to see if he could get his career going, and our casting director heard that there was this hot kid from Canada, so we auditioned him, and he was, far and away, the best guy that we had seen for the part. It was really his first lead role.”
2. John Wick Series (Chad Stahelski – 2014, 2017, 2019)
It all started when they killed John Wick’s (played by Reeves) cute little dog. He is a middle-aged lethal assassin who goes on a rampage to avenge the death of his loyal friend, trying to enforce his own sense of justice in an unjust universe. The character has become iconic and the next addition to the series is scheduled for 2022.
After the first film, Reeves said, “I like it when it succeeds at making it emotional, or there’s a reason for the character that’s beyond escape. You know what I mean? Or survival. That it’s part of something. There’s character development and a character journey and it has an emotional component to it. It’s dramatic storytelling. Not just spectacle.”
1. The Matrix Trilogy (Wachowski Sisters – 1999, 2003, 2003)
Arguably the most important role of Keanu Reeves’ career, his portrayal of Neo, the messiah of the technological age, solidified his status in popular culture. Set in a universe where consciousness is a simulation, Reeves navigates the complexities of The Matrixwith the composure of a saviour.
In his famous 1999 interview, Reeves remarked, “That fall where I jump from the building, that was like a 35-foot wire-jump. They just had some guys and a machine dropping me upside down. I got good enough to do the front flip and the back flip and the run up the wall. And I got to do one of the spins, so I really enjoyed it.”
“But I don’t know,” he added, “in an odd way that was the easy part. It’s finding the interior of the character that’s the challenge.”