Breaking Down the Keanu Kuleshov Effect

By  · Published on February 10th, 2017

Why action’s biggest star is also its blankest.

Have you ever acted? Memorized a script, stood on a stage or in front of a camera and did your best to disappear into someone else? As a former choir nerd in high school and college, I often found myself being asked to audition for the latest musical or student-led Broadway workshop. It was almost always a frustrating experience. Despite being able to picture the nuances of the performance in my head, when it came time to translate those to my own physicality, everything came out sluggish and inauthentic. Ten years later and I still have no idea what to do with my hands.

This is what I find myself thinking about every time I see Keanu Reeves onscreen. When people think to praise Reeves the performer, they often point to his incredible fight scenes in films like The Matrix and John Wick. His skill as a thespian is considerably less straight-forward. Ever since Reeves graduated from high school stoner comedies back in the ’90s, he’s been regarded by many as a bad actor occasionally capable of delivering serviceable performances. In recent years, however, a handful of good roles has inspired a little critical reinterpretation of what makes Reeves work as a leading man. There has even been the suggestion that his perceived weaknesses as an actor are actually his strengths; it is when he is not emoting that his performances lock into place.

In 2011, for example, The New York Times fielded questions from its audience on issues of acting, with both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis weighing in on Reeves’s talent as a bonafide Hollywood star. Dargis praised Reeves for what she described as his “beautiful blank quality that lends itself to our projections,” allowing him to operate uniquely as the savior character in several major franchises. In the same article, Scott echoed Dargis’s opinion, noting that his “gnomic blankness” should not hide the fact that his performances often feature “not stiffness so much as professionalism.” This would suggest that Reeves presents his own unique trick of editing – a Keanu Kuleshov Effect, if you will – that allows audiences to imbue his characters with whatever emotion they need him to display at any given time. And that, in combination with his undeniable physical prowess, is what allows him to be one of the great action stars of his day and age.

Both sides of the Keanu Reeves equation are on full display in John Wick: Chapter 2. On the one hand, you have all the minute and rehearsed gunfight sequences that made the original film such a tremendous success. Back in October, I wrote about how Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves had changed the Hollywood gunfight for all time, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is all the peer review need to prove that particular hypothesis. At an age where most action stars are slowing down, Reeves seems to be speeding up, showing off his fanatical training through his character’s signature combination of combat shooting and judo. In the sequel to John Wick, Reeves can barely be bothered to take a breathe, quite literally rolling through his opponents with a ferocity that would put a man half his age to shame.

If Reeves makes the film’s choreography look effortless, the same cannot be said for the film’s dialogue. There is effort in every line of dialogue he delivers, a ferocity that seems undone by the vaguely uncertain elements of pitch and volume and comprise his phrasing. Reeves certainly doesn’t get any help from the film’s supporting cast; John Wick: Chapter 2 is populated by standout character actors in colorful roles, with titans like Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne chewing through scenery as fast as Reeves and company can throw it up on the screen. But what makes it all work is this bizarre Keanu Kuleshov Effect, his knack for providing a reflective surface in the center of the film for the audience to see themselves in.

The Mount Rushmore of Hollywood Action Stars

Take the assassination scene with Claudia Gerini. It’s a small-but-essential performance by the Italian actress: in just a few short minutes of screen time, Gerini is able to convey both the power and poise of Gianna D’Antonio, a woman unafraid to die as long as she gets to choose the terms she goes out on. For his part, the first twenty minutes of the film have suggested that Wick is feeling any number of emotions in this moment. Regret at being forced to kill a friend; fear at what reentering a life of crime might mean for his soul; anger at being put in this situation to begin with. Reeves, of course, offers nothing. The audience is free to pick the emotion we feel best fits the character, and Reeves’s expression gives weight to any interpretation we land on. It’s not just the right choice for the scene, it’s actually what makes it work; there’s too much going on with his character in that moment for any concrete individual reaction to feel like the right one.

Even after watching John Wick: Chapter 2, I’m not certain if Reeves will ever have that one great performance in him; like me with my hands, we are too often aware of the effort required in his performances to ever really be able to look past the effort of him acting. What I am willing to say, though, is that Reeves might be an utterly unique actor, a once-in-a-lifetime combination of skill and stillness that led to some of the most exciting movies of the last three decades. As our own Danny Bowes notes, you can make certainly make a very solid case for Keanu Reeves on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood Action Stars; just make sure his sculpture features no expression whatsoever. We’re all pretty sure we know how he feels about that honor anyways.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)