TORONTO—You didn’t need to be a parent to emerge anxious and shell-shocked from this year’s Toronto film festival. Movie after movie extracted queasy drama from the spectacle of children in the clutches of kidnappers, pedophiles, murderers, religious fundamentalists, and Courtney Love–like mothers. If there was one film that entirely transcended exploitation in its Amber-alert suspense, it was Lodge Kerrigan’s grimly compelling Keane. Introduced stalking the sallow, buzzing corridors of New York’s Port Authority in search of the six-year-old daughter he lost a few months ago, the title character (viscerally embodied by Damian Lewis) is constantly in motion but trapped in a psychological impasse. Helplessly drawn to the site of his unthinkable loss, Keane replays the traumatic event compulsively, as if hoping to change its outcome; in a climax suspended between grief and remorse, he even attempts a harrowing re-enactment.
Keane‘s festival success (the best-received American indie in Toronto, it plays the New York Film Festival October 13 and 14) marks a comeback for Kerrigan after a period of infrequent activity and miserable luck. Following his widely admired debut, Clean, Shaven (1994), an audacious first-person exercise in schizophrenic hallucination, Kerrigan saw his 1998 Cannes entry Claire Dolan languish without U.S. distribution for two years. In 2002, he finished shooting his third feature, In God’s Hands, but due to “extensive negative damage,” was forced to abandon the project.
Each of Kerrigan’s films has focused, with almost frightening tenacity, on a single opaque, obsessive character. If Claire Dolan evoked Jeanne Dielman, Keane suggests Rosetta. Shot in long takes and agitated handheld close-ups, the film plunges the viewer into the personal space of a severely troubled protagonist. Kerrigan, who spent hours rehearsing each setup, says, “Some takes are four minutes long. The magazine was 400 feet, and there’s one take in the movie that ran out at 399 feet.”
There’s an implicit political dimension to Keane, which is set in and around Port Authority and across the Lincoln Tunnel in North Bergen, and doubles as a snapshot of industrialized, minimum-wage America. “We tend to blame the poor for being poor,” Kerrigan says. “It’s like how we deal with the mentally ill. It’s the job of the police to remove them from public sight. Everyone knows that, but it’s important to show that there are people who struggle every day, who deserve compassion instead of criticism.”
Keane apparently suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and the film’s unnerving precariousness and ambiguity (is it possible the missing child never existed?) arise directly from his mental instability. “A close friend of mine suffers from schizophrenia,” says Kerrigan, who has researched mental illness extensively over the years. “Maybe deep down I don’t feel that far removed from crossing that line. Mental health is such a fragile entity. We have this expectation that human beings are going to be wired correctly and our nervous systems are going to work. I find it amazing that they do work as well.”
Another comeback from an indie stalwart, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin at first seems a curious fit: a heartfelt Midwestern repressed-memory coming-of-ager from the master of SoCal snark? But despite its uncharacteristic composure, Araki’s jaggedly poetic eighth feature, adapted from Scott Heim’s novel, has much in common with the director’s best work: “aliens and Slowdive music,” as Araki deadpanned at a Toronto press conference, not to mention a strong outsider empathy and a simultaneously brash and complicated take on nascent sexuality and desire.
The film inverts the familiar Amerindie trick of pedophile identification (L.I.E., The Woodsman, Todd Solondz). “You hear about pedophilia in the news all the time, but people are sort of numb to it,” Araki says in a phone interview. “This story puts you through the subjective experience of what these boys go through.” The most unnerving aspect of the film involves the heightened sexual awareness of one of the boys, who, at eight, is masturbating to his mother’s Playgirl and plainly attracted to the baseball coach who goes on to abuse him. That he’s hardly a typical victim only reinforces the film’s moral point of view.
Few contemporary directors eroticize their actors as unabashedly as Araki, and he delights here in re-inventing former 3rd Rock moppet Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a strutting dicktease. “Joe has some tough scenes for a straight kid,” Araki says with a laugh. But working with the two leads’ eight-year-old counterparts was uncharted territory. “The film is about deep childhood trauma and the last thing I wanted to do was traumatize a child,” says Araki. “A lot of it was like the Kuleshov experiment,” he notes, referring to the Soviet-montage concept. “I figured out how to use subjective camera and point of view—only then did I think I could make an uncompromising adaptation that deals with the tougher parts of the book.”
Judging from the Venice and Toronto screenings, Araki says Mysterious Skin is tapping into an unexpected demographic.”It seems to bring out a maternal instinct in older women, who I thought would be freaked out. At the Toronto screening, the median age was like 55.” He laughs. “Maybe that’s the secret audience that’s been renting The Doom Generation all these years.”