THE MATRIX At 20: Considering Cypher, Neo’s Shadow

Joe Pantoliano’s treacherous slimeball is a fascinating inversion of Reeves’ iconic hero in both performance and text.

The Matrix is a film of mirrors. Speaking literally, it uses actual reflective objects in two of its most striking images. The famous red and blue pills are framed in Morpheus' (Laurence Fishburne)’ sunglasses. And Neo (Keanu Reeves) is first transfixed and then almost devoured by an actual mirror just before he is unplugged from the Matrix. Speaking structurally, the events of The Matrix’s closing sequence are the inverse of its opening. The movie begins with the Machines running a trace program that successfully locates Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). She is surprised, disturbed and has to flee from the superhuman Agents, who terrify her. It ends with Neo using his power as the One to destroy Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). Terrified, Agents Brown and Jones (Paul Goddard and Robert Taylor) flee from him. Later, the Machines try to run their trace program on Neo, only for him to freeze it in its tracks and fly away, creating a new paradigm for the world. Speaking textually, The Matrix is deeply concerned with identity and perception – Neo’s powers as the One are tied directly to his sense of self, which also shapes his appearance within the Matrix – an appearance that evolves alongside his understanding. And then there’s Cypher. Between Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s skillful script work and Joe Pantoliano’s superbly loathsome performance, the hate-filled traitor to humanity is shaped into one of The Matrix’s most important mirrors – he’s Neo’s antithesis.

Neo gladly puts his own life on the line and faces fearful odds against the Agents and their small army of cops to save Morpheus. And, prior to Trinity pulling rank and insisting on joining him, he is willing to face those odds alone. Cypher fights strictly for his own comfort, and only does so in ways that put him in as little risk as possible. The only time he takes direct, aggressive action is when he believes that anyone who could oppose him is either dead or helpless. Neo takes the Oracle seriously and listens to her advice, even as he is deeply leery of the idea of a grand destiny. He ultimately does accept that he is the One, but he does so because of his and Trinity’s actions rather than any particular speech or declaration. Cypher acts knowing and cynical when meeting with Agent Smith but is caught up in the idea that he will be “…rich. Someone important. Like an actor.” He never once considers the very real possibility that the Agents are playing him for a fool.

Neo and Cypher’s stories both begin where the other man’s ends. Neo starts off knowing that something is wrong with his world, but he cannot find the words to describe what – he lives life as if in a dream. Cypher starts off knowing the truth about the world, and that knowledge shapes everything about his behavior. Neo closes The Matrix having not only learned the truth but developing so complete an understanding of it that he can bend the Matrix and its rules to his will. Cypher closes The Matrix so lost in his depraved dream that he is utterly blindsided and disbelieving when Marcus Chong’s Tank powers through his injuries to strike him down with his own lightning gun in the real world.

The mirroring between Neo and Cypher extends to and is enhanced by Reeves and Pantoliano’s performances. Consider the late-night conversation the two have:

Essaying Reeves’ work as Neo at Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién writes “Unlike other action stars, Reeves’s masculinity is fluid, mutable. He often suggests – with a smirk, or glare, or the careful precision of his balletic violence – that the emotional turmoil of his characters is more than just a plot point, but rather a physical reality interwoven into the performance… The way he foregrounds Neo’s curiosity and loneliness adds an untold dimension to the film, about what it means to find not just your purpose but your family as well.” For all the hard-hitting grace of his martial arts and the brutal style he brings to his gunplay, Neo is a remarkably quiet performance. Reeves’ physicality is guarded but fluid, suggesting that even in action Neo is always thinking, always considering the big picture. The reality of the Matrix, and eventually of his being the One is a LOT for Neo to take in. But even though he is astonished by these truths, Neo is able to accept and move with them. So, when he is about to set off a bomb and rocket to the top of the building where Morpheus is being held, Neo takes a second to remind himself that “There is no spoon.”

Pantoliano, by contrast, is a ball of energy who is simultaneously rigid and uncomfortable. Cypher chatters constantly, hoping to charm and distract. He wants to be both noticed and ignored. His body language – his constantly crossed arms and omnipresent smirk – is deliberately and artificially aloof, an attempt to look cool and collected even though he is almost constantly nervous. Until his treachery comes into the open, Cypher moves stiffly. It’s a bigger effort for him to ditch his phone, giving the Agents the rebel’s location in the Matrix, than it is for Trinity to beat the stuffing out of the cops who attempt to arrest her in the movie’s opening. When Cypher does feel comfortable, whether conspiring with Smith or murdering his teammates from the safety of the real world, he moves like id unleashed, relishing the act of cutting a perfect steak or ending someone’s life with the pull of a plug. Pantoliano imbues Cypher’s movements during these scenes with a sense of total entitlement, a sincere belief that the world exists for him and him alone. It makes his shock (I’m sorry) at Tank’s survival and his own impending death immensely satisfying.

Within the larger Matrix narrative, Agent Smith is a more explicit and more personal shadow counterpart to Neo – both are parts of the Machine’s system of control who rebelled against their own purpose, but to opposite ends. But within The Matrix itself, Cypher is a more immediate inversion – someone who was freed from the Matrix but who rejected reality to the point that he would kill to be free of it. Cypher is cowardly, cunning, ruthless and vindictive. He’s a terrific villain, pushing the movie’s story forward and deepening its themes and Pantoliano’s performance of him as Neo’s opposite is note perfect.