I’m so pissed. For years I’ve been told that Keanu Reeves in this film is bad. He’s on every shitty mid-2000s comedy website list of the all-time worst performances. His English accent is constantly mocked. He’s called wooden, emotionless, an embarrassment to the more talented actors around him. Well now I’ve seen the film, and the only embarrassment I can see belongs to the people who have spent the last quarter-century deriding Reeves’ work in it.
People have such limited imaginations when it comes to defining “good acting.” They think performance should be limited by boring notions like realism or believability. They think a good performance always resembles how a real person would actually speak and behave. There is, by and large, no audience conception of what performance actually is, that being a filmmaker’s broadly applicable tool. A performance need not be realistic to make you feel a certain way or think a certain thing. Film acting is a provocative act, not some passive imitation of an already subjective idea like “reality.” I frequently see terrible performances lauded and praised simply because they feel “real.” So fucking what?
Reeves is so good in Bram Stoker’s Dracula precisely because he doesn’t feel like a real person. No one in this movie feels like a real person. Gary Oldman is absurdly heightened to the point of camp, Anthony Hopkins is hilariously dry and matter-of-fact, Winona Ryder is almost a parody of the breathy romantic. There isn’t a realistic performance in the bunch, but none of them suffer for it. Reeves is there to play the straight man, and so he plays him as tortuously bland. He needs to work at a certain level to counterbalance what Oldman is doing. The early scene of the two men at dinner is funny and frightening. It works because of Reeves’ decided underreactions to Oldman’s ridiculous behavior. It creates a context for Oldman’s Dracula that carries through the rest of the film. Oldman needs Reeves to play against. Neither performance works without the other.
It wasn’t just Reeves that surprised me, though. I was astonished by the film’s visual design. Coppola makes spectacular use of crossfades and superimposition, creating images haunted by the traumas of past and present alike. For a story which often engenders dull, austere adaptations, Coppola is working in a surprisingly impressionistic mode here. He’s unafraid to blur and blend and stretch his shots until they resemble nothing we comprehend but imply something powerful. It’s an appropriately Romantic cinema, each frame exploding (sometimes literally) with lust and blood.
I adored Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for reasons which made it unsurprising how underseen and unloved it seems to be. Even many of the film’s fans are wrong about Reeves. Sometimes it’s hard being the only person with correct opinions about movies. It’s lonely at the top. But it’s a cross I have to bear.