The Mesmerizing Ciphers of Riley Keough

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The Mesmerizing Ciphers of Riley Keough

Intimidatingly chilly and marvelously internalized, Riley Keough’s performances rarely seek to solve the slippery, confounding mysteries of her best characters. Elegantly unreadable, she exudes that kind of classic Hollywood glamour that Alfred Hitchcock would have adored, especially because the pull Keough exerts (like Grace Kelly before her) is most about the cold fire one can sense burning beneath her glassy, reserved exterior.

With her heavy-lidded eyes, Mona Lisa smile and almost preternatural poise, Keough has been fielding comparisons to her larger-than-life grandfather, rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley, for her entire life. But since making her screen debut with a supporting role in 2010’s The Runaways, Keough has essentially side-stepped The King’s shadow with an impressive career in American independent film, playing complicated and withdrawn women whose enigmatic qualities and sense of concealed darkness linger long after the credits roll. Keough’s magnetism owes plenty with her airy, flower-child mien and fascinatingly restrained screen presence, but it’s this opacity that makes her mesmerizing.

A24’s Zola, her latest role, offers the actress an unusually splashy showcase. As Stefani, who recruits her Detroit waitress (Taylour Paige, the title character and narrator) for a weekend of stripping in Tampa’s ostensibly lucrative clubs, Keough comes out swinging, turning a comically destructive white woman into a full-force cyclone of glittery, gaslighting chaos.

Cultural appropriation incarnate, Keough’s Stefani styles her hair in garish cornrows and sports a thick “Blaccent,” screeching blithely about another woman’s “nappy-ass” hair and lolling her tongue out with Miley Cyrus-level abandon. This is less naturalistic performance than white-trash burlesque, which feels right for this story of a lost weekend retold, embellished and reclaimed as something more surreal and nightmarish. Stefani is also something of an evolution for Keough, whose trademark inscrutability is at this point so firmly established that she can construct comically outsized personas over her characters’ willfully obfuscated cores.

In Keough’s hands, Stefani is a hypnotically repulsive figure, but there’s a sinister, possibly calculated emptiness to her gaze that flummoxes and fascinates both Zola and the audience, while keeping everyone in the dark as to her motivations. If Stefani’s engaging in sex work to support a baby back home, why wouldn’t she be charging more than $150 per customer? And if Stefani’s a victim, hopelessly under the thumb of a controlling pimp (Colman Domingo), why does she snare women like Zola in the same trap? Nothing about Stefani completely adds up (another tell that we’re getting Zola’s unflattering impression of Stefani rather than a fully dimensionalized portrait).

The first film adapted from a Twitter thread (by A’Ziah “Zola” King), Zola navigates the dramatic, often discombobulating gulf between performance and reality, mainly focusing on Zola, Stefani and the intriguingly sincere ways in which they continue to read and misread one another. As such, the film becomes a carousel of gazes and mirrors, as these women continually size each other up and examine their own reflections with the same steely-eyed, coolly distant expression. Keough in particular toys with Stefani’s necessary shapelessness, the character’s formation through Zola’s eyes as a demonic facsimile, without completely erasing the flickers of piteous, miserable humanity behind those glimmering, shark-like eyes. At one point, Zola shifts, dramatically, into a sequence where Stefani can relay her version of events in what amounts to a frantic, racist broadside against Zola; this plays for incredulous comedy, but at the center of it lies Stefani’s fury and despair at both the powerlessness of her situation and the indignity of being cast as the villain in someone else’s story. In this sequence and others, Keough makes Stefani more of a flesh-and-blood person, and consequently more unsettling, than the cartoon character presented by the original thread.

Stefani may be Keough’s boldest creation to date, which really means something given the array of indecipherable women she’s played since first appearing on screen in 2010. At age 20, Keough’s film debut (which she secured after her very first audition) came in the form of Floria Sigismondi’s musical biopic The Runaways. Playing the twin sister to Dakota Fanning’s Cherie Currie, Keough’s Marie doesn’t seek the spotlight, instead holding down the homefront as Cherie pursues rock ‘n’ roll stardom. But Keough’s lineage meant the headlines wrote themselves, which likely came as no surprise to a young woman who’d grown up a music royal.

In her teenage years, Keough worked successfully as a model, appearing in Dior campaigns and gracing the covers of the Japanese Elle magazine and France’s L’Officiel. Her first big U.S. magazine spread came before either; shortly after turning 15, she was centered on the August cover of Vogue opposite mother Lisa Marie and grandmother Priscilla, as part of a spread titled “The Age Issue,” shot by Annie Leibovitz. It led by asking the Presley women about “living with Elvis’s legacy,” and Keough, born 12 years after his death, was the cover’s haunting center.

Dressed in immaculate white, in contrast to darker dresses worn by Lisa Marie and Priscilla, the youngest Keough stares directly into the camera, the picture of dynastic glamour. That issue was the first time Keough had spoken to the press, and its cover was the world’s introduction to her inimitable gaze: Transfixing but ice-cold, alluringly impassive. This look defines many of Keough’s best characters, whose psychological depths are withheld at such a distance they’re elusive to the audience and sometimes feel unknown even to her.

Pre-Zola, Keough’s ability to lock into the emotional center of characters who would otherwise exist as ciphers has made her an invaluable supporting player within the ensemble casts of her biggest films. As Capable, one of Immortan Joe’s five wives in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, she captured the character’s bruised heart and, even in the heat of a high-octane chase epic, carried off the tender bond that develops mid-pursuit between Capable and a reformed “Warboy” (Nicholas Hoult). Steven Soderbergh, meanwhile, cast Keough in a small role in another stripper saga, 2011’s Magic Mike—she was the one with the teacup pig—and worked with her again on 2017’s heist caper Logan Lucky, where she played the fast-driving little sister to Adam Driver and Channing Tatum’s ringleaders.

Slipping into a West Virginia dialect for Logan Lucky was just one instance in which Keough’s chameleonic voice has become a defining element of her performance. Andrea Arnold’s road opus American Honey is another. Few moments in the film can match the one in which Keough’s gum-snapping queen bee Krystal, clad in a confederate-flag bikini, orders her boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf) to rub lotion all over her body as his lover (Sasha Lane) watches uncomfortably on.

Flinty and ferocious, Keough shades in Krystal with enough subtle detail and sun-dried country twang to make her feel dangerous, stealing the movie out from under LaBeouf and Lane in the process.

There’s a spangled, free-wheeling energy to the lost souls Keough plays that makes them feel both uniquely American and unmoored from their respective time periods. Such is the potency of this wistful blasé that one could easily imagine Keough as a Manson girl, loitering on the periphery of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… But the actress played around in another L.A. sandbox to play the cosmically vanished Sarah in David Robert Mitchell’s pop-up meta-panoramic Under the Silver Lake. An object of lust, frustration, and fascination for Andrew Garfield’s peeping-tom protagonist, her Sarah is consciously an archetype, evoking Marilyn Monroe’s coquettish girls next door then skewering our expectations of the same.

Keough’s characters often take on such mythic dimensions. In Jeremy Saulnier’s stunning action-thriller Hold the Dark, the actress is heartbreaking and scary as a young mother who claims her son was taken by the wolves circling her dying Alaskan village, her grief spiraling out into such a pattern of ritual and reckoning that it gradually flecks the snow with blood and threatens to crack the sky. There’s something off about her Medora, and it’s the same uncanny that inexorably runs through Hold the Dark. Saulnier’s wise to entrust Keough with many of the script’s brooding, poetic monologues; her melancholy is ineffable, frost-bitten, bone-deep.

Keough’s just as perfectly cast in The Lodge, a psychological horror-thriller from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) that mirrors her wintry, ominous performance by setting its action at a remote cabin tucked away somewhere in the snow-capped wilderness of rural New England. Like the vast lake just outside the cabin, her Grace appears frozen over. But when the stepchildren she’s snowed in with start to mess with her, Grace’s repressed memories begin to resurface, allowing Keough to unravel in unusually explosive fashion. As a study in one woman gradually overwhelmed by her trauma, it’s on par with Toni Collette’s work in Hereditary without straining for that film’s schematic cruelty. Instead, this intricately observed performance is most unnerving and enthralling through tiny gestures, tics and anxious glances that elevate the filmmakers’ mind games while twisting Keough’s trademark subtlety in more sinister directions. (The other film to manage this is Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, a taut chamber piece in which she’s slightly underutilized, but still effective, as the quietly despairing wife of Christopher Abbott’s desperate apocalypse survivor.)

But nowhere is the power of Keough’s glacial remove more apparent than across Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s eerie first season of The Girlfriend Experience (a Starz series inspired by Soderbergh’s film of the same name), in which she plays an ambitious law student also working as a high-end escort. As her character, Christine Reade, navigates both worlds with a sangfroid so practiced it chills, the actress captures the emotional detachment and mesmerizing stillness of a woman moving through the world as a blank canvas, all the better for imploring those around her to project their most intimate desires. In a line of work that mandates client satisfaction, she customizes her personality to please whomever she’s faced with, which accounts for the haunting vacancy in her eyes when she’s left alone.

More than that, Keough baits the audience into a parasocial dynamic not dissimilar to those Christine cultivates with her clients, teasing the camera with flashes of anger, lust and vulnerability that could be read as revealing…or as simply more roleplay. As the season enters its final hours, and Christine’s carefully separated career paths collide, the accumulating cracks in Christine’s façade never lead her to completely shatter. Instead, everything glimpsed beneath her insidiously blank expressions and low whispers simply fuels the larger question of what (or even if) Christine has left to desire for herself. It’s a testament to Keough’s instincts as an actor that she never attempts to decode Christine, nor simplify the motivations of her characters to anything so easily definable.

We’ve learned to expect as much from Keough, whose gleaming veneers appear only to multiply as you study her performances closer. Zola’s hall-of-mirrors motif, in which Stefani and Zola are encircled by their reflections in a surreal otherworld, may be visual shorthand for the film’s view of an Internet that simultaneously holds us in its thrall and keeps reality at a distorted distance. But it’s also an apt metaphor for Keough’s beguilingly guarded style of acting, which hints at tempestuous emotions swirling beneath outer surfaces polished to a high gloss. Few actors are so magnificently assured at playing women who may be truly unknowable, or as wondrously at ease letting their mysteries be.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.