(USA - 2004)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Damian Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Amy Ryan
Genre: Drama
Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Screenplay: Lodge Kerrigan
Cinematography: John Foster
Composer: -
Runtime: 100 minutes

Lodge Kerrigan hasn't directed many films, but he's at least as good as anyone when it comes to effectively and humanely depicting disturbed mental states. Like his debut feature Clean, Shaven, this is an intense, intimate, and suspenseful one-man character study of a possible schizophrenic father whose serious mental damage is at least partly due to being separated from his young daughter. Kerrigan never had a problem creating a menacing atmosphere of dread through subtle tension - the kind we sense because we are so close to a character that feels it - and presenting a main character on the brink of disaster whom we care about even though we find them creepy and disturbing. Clean, Shaven is pure film and thus far flashier, fitting more closely in the surreal horror/thriller genre. Keane is a desperate and immediate Dardenne style visceral maelstrom, eliminating the artifice such as all audio beyond the ambient in an effort to simply depict scenes from life. It's a quite but relentless cinema verite masterwork that maintains some of the unsettling aspects of Clean, Shaven as well as the ability to leave an indelible imprint but is more compassionate.

Keane is Kerrigan's deepest and most compelling story, largely because it's so mysterious. Perhaps mystery is the wrong word though; it's not so much that Kerrigan chooses not to solve questions money films find essential. Instead, he tells us we shouldn't care about their answers because they would not tell us any more about the character. They would only tell us how to judge him, which would take us out of the moment and allow us to be comfortable and feel superior.

People's opinion of Keane is likely to be based on whether they believe his illness can be cured, but it's important to note that we don't know what Keane's mental problems are. Even if you believe doctors fully understand mental illness, (like Peter Winter in Clean, Shaven) we assume he has never been in for diagnoses. There are several factors that have created a lost and broken man, but all that is really important is what he believes the root is, the abduction of his daughter.

Whether or not she exists, William Keane (Damian Lewis) is clearly searching for his young offspring. Virtually everything he does is an action or reaction to this notion that she has been stolen from him. All of Kerrigan's main characters see a child as their only chance for happiness, causing them to act irrationally and desperate.

A very simple tactic, reversing the typical soap opera scenario, works brilliantly. Normally everyone seems great but is then revealed to be shady. Here Kerrigan shows us all Keane's vices and inconsistencies in the early portion, causing us to think he's an unstable nutcase that no one could coexist with for long because he's ready to snap at any moment. Then in the second half we see William with the mother (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) and are surprised, and perhaps scared, to learn he is also capable of a lot of good. These scenes give us an idea of the man William could be, once was, or hopefully both. Our gut reaction is still to distrust him, partially because we know a lot more than they do, but also I think a lot of it is what we've been taught as a viewer. Entertainment is always teaching us to distrust everyone, and even if in the case of Keane that might not be a bad thing, it doesn't help us to understand him. Kerrigan is asking us to try to comprehend this being. To do so you might need to take a step back and think of a time when your life was screwed up and you felt like you couldn't fix it alone. If you ever needed certain other people to get back in the right direction, to notice your worth and give you a purpose, then perhaps you aren't as different from Keane as you'd hope.

Like Sean Penn's masterful The Pledge, we can't be sure whether Keane is trying to build a real relationship or using a mother and daughter for a dangerous experiment. The neglected child's need for a father, acceptance of and soon reliance upon the aching for a daughter star adds a touching aspect to the film, though one that is never overridden by the potential for disaster.

Much of the film's depth comes from the fact that Keane seems to want to be a good person but may not be mentally capable of keeping himself under control. At least for now he doesn't process information like a fully functioning human and is extremely prone to impulse and delusion. Keane may not be a good person for the mother and child, if at all, and he might be up to something whether he's conscious of it or not. The point is not for us to find out if he can or if he can't. The fact that he is almost a normal functioning person when they are around and he does all he can to help them out turns what could be a black and white situation that's all about the end result into one that is not the least bit clear cut. The film requires you to contemplate the needs, desires, and deficiencies of all three.

Even if Keane is largely a one-man show, what emerges are three very needy people who probably can't help each other but clearly could use someone. Keane's character is revealed solely through his actions, and every other character is seen only through his perspective, purposely denying us any distancing devices. As he is the only one involved in the search and the details he provides about his life are often conflicting, we are never sure of even the most basic facts, much less the important ones like was his daughter really abducted at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.

Both Keane and Clean, Shaven's Peter Winter want to fit in, but where Winter is guessing Keane is knowledgeable. He knows what he is supposed to do and that his only chance to succeed is to do it; it's just a matter of whether he can fight off his demons long enough to sustain the proper behavior. This makes the film heartbreaking because Winter would never be able to make his daughter like him, which is better for both of them. Keane's illness is bad enough he is fighting it at every moment, but he is capable of befriending the girl. Maybe that makes him worse for her because Keane being such a time bomb could likely cause another heartbreak for a sad shy girl who doesn't seem like she can withstand too many more, but perhaps that's Keane's self doubt speaking. We are so close to the character we can't help but go along with the fears and doubts that riddle him. Like Keane, we can't escape his mental illness.

I'm not the biggest fan of handheld camera, but John Foster's lengthy naturally lit takes of tight unsteady focus are perfect for conveying Keane's mental unbalance, and more importantly similarly denying the audience a broad and reasoned perspective that would allow them to sit back and judge Keane. Andrew Hafitz jumpy and disjointed editing does an excellent job of portraying Keane's fragmented mind, making the audience wonder just how little of this story is shown chronologically. The best thing about this film is - like life - so much is left unknown and unanswered.

Acting performances of startling brilliance are something we can expect from Kerrigan's films. Though a great performance by Katrin Cartlidge should be no surprise, Damian Lewis and Peter Greene were young actors who put themselves on the map with their work in Kerrigan's films. Hopefully, unlike Greene, Lewis will have other similar achievements.

Lewis is so deeply immersed in his performance that we have to remind ourselves he is acting. He uses a lot of tricks, particularly related to the voice such as repetition, talking to himself, and mumbling, but he always emerges as a confused scared character who is trying to deal with a ton of anguish rather than an actor who is simply giving himself crutches. It's an intense mercurial performance. More often Keane is frantic, hyper, restless, paranoid, but the high marks come from the fact Lewis makes such a mark when he is quite. He's lost in the depths of hopelessness, deep in a maze of despair he can't seem to navigate his way out of. It's through his ability to convey this that we can understand even if not necessarily justify his lashing out at a world that sometimes pays too much attention to him, but often doesn't notice him at all.

Far less is asked of young Breslin, but she emerges as a very real character that is always hopeful despite obviously sustaining many wounds from inattentive and inconsistent adults. She gives us hope not only for herself, but also for Keane by showing us she's still capable of blossoming when someone takes an interest in her. She hasn't been through as much as Keane, and children tend to be more resilient or so we think, but if nothing else she gives Keane a much needed reason to try and quick rewards for his efforts.




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