Gilbey on Film: low-budget thrills

The star of Frownland breaks through the slickness of movie acting.

Oh, the giddy thrill of chancing upon a newcomer to screen acting. We've already marvelled at Tahar Rahim, who holds his own in every scene of A Prophet (and will be seen next year in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle of the Ninth). And despite having four years' worth of zero-budget "mumblecore" films under her belt, Greta Gerwig came to most audiences' attention this year with her unguarded performance in Greenberg.

Now Dore Mann, in the new picture Frownland, breaks through the gloss and slickness generally associated with screen acting. I say the film is new, but that only applies to the UK. It was finished in 2007. Its writer-director, a former projectionist named Ronald Bronstein, hasn't confirmed how long the movie took to make, though he admits he stopped counting at three years.

In 2008, Bronstein distributed Frownland himself in the US after it played on the festival circuit. It begins at London's ICA this Friday, and screens until the end of the month.

The film concerns Keith (played by Mann), a psychotically dysfunctional Brooklyn coupon salesman, and the various warped or disintegrating relationships in his life. Bronstein was influenced by the early work of Mike Leigh, particularly Bleak Moments and Nuts in May, and it shows: the camera is unflinching in its inventory of Keith's emotional paralysis. (Any scene in which he succeeds in reaching the end of a sentence without stammering himself into a frenzy, or being crushingly humiliated, counts as upbeat.)

Bronstein describes Frownland as "a movie that, like me, can't quite tell whether it loves or hates people, and instead careens back and forth between the two in a queasy, confused kind of way."

I'm particularly fascinated by the fearless Mann, who appears to have done no other acting either before or since Frownland, but who radiates a raw authenticity untouched by technique. There is a downtrodden, slobby humour to his work here -- he makes Paul Giamatti look like George Clooney -- and yet no part of his performance is addressed to, or even explicitly acknowledges, the audience. Watching Mann makes you remember the first time it hit you that cinema is voyeurism.

"I met Dore at a family funeral," Bronstein has said, "and within a couple of minutes I knew I wanted to build a project around him... [He] is just a spastic powerhouse of talent. He was driven to basically expend every drop of his creative self for the sake of his role... to the point that we really haven't had all that much to say to each other since the production wound down."

He expands on this, and his own working process, in a fantastically thorough interview with Slant magazine:

I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes -- how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns -- and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody's brain instead of writing with a pen. [Dore]... is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It's a performance, but he's still tapping into something in himself... I'm looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.

Explaining how the on-screen relationship between Keith and his sort-of girlfriend Mary was built up using off-camera improvisation (again harking back to Leigh's method), Bronstein reveals that he engineered an internet relationship between the respective actors:

They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet. Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That's what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.

Mann's performance has not wanted for acclaim. The sparky critic and writer Neil Young has made room for it in the upper reaches of his ongoing and diligent list of the finest performances of the decade. I haven't found any interviews with Mann, but a statement on his MySpace page , written shortly after completing Frownland, reads:

Just finished acting in and creatively contributing to a feature film (a Cassavetes-style character study if that means anything). I have a bottomless appetite for art, history, psychology and learning in general. Though perhaps that sounds a bit dry. Academia aside, I have a very active sense of humour and look for the same in others (just ask to see my Kabuki-style Bill Cosby impression and you'll see what I mean).

If he never acts again, and never wants to, his reputation is assured.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In praise of Keanu Reeves, the nicest of meatheads

The Hollywood star has embraced a life without pretensions. 

The Rolling Stone journalist Chris Heath once asked Keanu Reeves a simple question: why do you act? The star of The Matrix, Speed, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho paused the conversation to consider the matter. And he paused it for a long time. “Forty-two seconds, he says nothing. Not a word, a grunt, a prevarication, or a hint that an answer might come,” wrote Heath. But then an answer did come: “Uh… the words that popped into my head were expression and, uh, it's fun.” When Heath later asked Reeves if he ever wanted to direct, he waited 72 seconds for: “No, not really.”

Both Coco Chanel and George Orwell observed that by 50, we have the face we deserve. The Beirut-born Reeves is now 52 (the same age as Nigel Farage, as tweeters and bored bloggers periodically point out), but he looks pretty much the same as he has always looked: solidly handsome and straightforward, yet somehow vulnerable, like a Boy Scout who wants to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t. Jan de Bont, the director of the 1994 film Speed, called him “an action hero for the Nineties”. By this, I think he meant that, unlike the muscle-bound shit-kickers of the previous decade, a Keanu hero wouldn’t go out of his way to kill for fun. Where Arnold Schwarzenegger could, in Total Recall, shoot the woman he had wrongly believed to be his wife and joke, “Consider this a divorce,” Keanu always seemed somewhat conflicted while taking care of business – as if his eyes were saying, “Sorry it had to be this way.” The Nineties were the age of hunky romantics: Jason Priestley as Brandon in Beverly Hills, 90210, Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. Keanu fit that mould. I suppose even guys with guns had to be sensitive.

And even dumb guys, too, with or without guns – for you don’t have to be able to think in order to feel. Reeves began his career describing himself as “a meathead”. “I can’t help it, man,” he said. “You’ve got smart people and you’ve got dumb people. I just happen to be dumb.” He specialised in playing benevolent meatheads, from Ted “Theodore” Logan in Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to the spaced-out teen Tod Higgins in Ron Howard’s Parenthood (both 1989). Then he traded meathead simplicity for that of the likeable (and, as ever, sensitive) action hero in films such as Speed (1994) and Chain Reaction (1996). The Matrix series followed, as did a few smaller, more indie-ish movies (Thumbsucker, A Scanner Darkly). But the 2014 action film John Wick, whose sequel is in cinemas now, was widely welcomed as a return to form.

Reeves largely plays the assassin of the title as a primitive cinematic archetype, but he can't help but gesture towards something more profound. Wick, in both films of the franchise, is motivated by grief over the death of his wife. (In 2001, Reeves’s girlfriend Jennifer Syme died in a motor accident, a year after losing their child; perhaps the role had a personal resonance for him.) He might stab people in the head with pencils, break necks and shoot guns into crowded rooms like Chow Yun Fat after three espressos, but he’s ultimately a man of feeling.

This narrative of a career of sensitive but slightly dumb simplicity isn’t quite fair on Reeves, however. For he has, on occasion, been capable of delivering complex performances that rank alongside those of his more conventionally actorly peers. In 1991, he held his own opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s road movie My Own Private Idaho; he has since appeared opposite Al Pacino as a wily defence attorney (The Devil’s Advocate) and Gene Hackman as a troubled sportsman (The Replacements). He has been directed by film festival favourites such as Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha) and Sam Raimi (The Gift) – if not always successfully.

And he started his career not with excellent dudes, but with Shakespeare. When Reeves was 14 and living in Toronto, he was cast as Mercutio in a local production of Romeo and Juliet. An agent who saw him signed him up and secured for him a string of television roles, which swiftly took him to Hollywood. Reeves’s embarrassingly stilted attempt to portray the evil Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) makes me fear the discovery of video footage of that version of Romeo. But the fact that Reeves’s life as an actor began in this way reminds me of his seriousness about his craft. He might not have much range but he has admirable ambition. Many years later, when the studios pressured him to sign on for a Speed sequel, he ran off to play Hamlet in Canada.

In 2011, the New Statesman’s film critic, Ryan Gilbey, observed in the Guardian that Reeves had “some claim to be the most enigmatic, as well as the most warmly adored” actor in Hollywood. That assessment was based in part on the “Sad Keanu” meme that had spread the previous year, in which a paparazzi photograph of Reeves morosely eating a sandwich on a bench led to countless expressions of sympathy online (more than 14,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Cheer Up Keanu”; 200,000 comments about the picture were left on Reddit) and to the declaration by fans of a “Cheer Up Keanu Day”, which apparently takes place every 15 June.

This weird adoration and the sense of enigma surrounding the actor are, I think, closely linked. We know relatively little about Reeves’s off-screen life, which he keeps well guarded, but what we do know suggests qualities that are, for one reason or another, vanishingly rare in entertainment gossip warm humanity and hidden depths. Hagiographic stories circulate of the actor donating millions of dollars to animal welfare charities and cancer research (his younger sister Kim was diagnosed with leukaemia); of Reeves offering stranded hitchhikers a ride; of a team of stuntmen being surprised with a gift of £6,000 Harley Davidson motorbikes, which he had quietly paid for.

“Money is the last thing I think about,” Hello magazine reported him saying in 2003. Not long earlier, he had reduced his pay by several million dollars so that the producers of The Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements could afford to hire Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, respectively. And, according to ABC News, he “handed over his valuable profit-sharing points” to the special effects and costume design team of the Matrix franchise, which he believed deserved the true credit for its success. (Some place the value of this donation at $50m.) By these accounts, Reeves is most definitely a righteous dude. He’s also a curious one. A few days after the Brexit vote, the New Statesman’s politics editor, George Eaton, was surprised to find him visiting Portcullis House as a guest of the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi. It was “fittingly surreal”, George told me, and Reeves came across as “courteous” and “modest” when he posed for a group selfie with some of the journalists who happened to be there.

As Reeves’s star rose in the early 1990s, the American men’s magazine Details lamented: “Nearly all celebrities – nearly all people – like to talk about themselves [but] Keanu doesn’t.” I guess it’s frustrating for journalists that someone so clearly interesting should be reticent about telling us about himself.

But I don’t really have to know much about Keanu Reeves to like him, though I’ve never met the guy. And there are things that I can learn from him, too. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Alex Winter’s Bill S Preston, Esq., paraphrases Socrates: “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” To which Reeves’s Ted responds: “That’s us, dude.” That’s them – and every one of us with any sense, if we’re honest. We may think we’re smart and even persuade the people around us that we are. But in the end, most of us are meatheads. Reeves shows in his life and work that meatheads can live good lives, even in the face of disparagement and personal tragedy. Maybe Chanel and Orwell were on to something – he really does have the face he deserves.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.