Most movies, as things that are made, come off as massive, costly, inscrutable technological erections—like cathedrals or suspension bridges—but Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane seems to have simply occurred of its own accord, like a gutter sapling or a piece of street drama you happened to walk by, alive and crazy and without guile. Instead of money-on-the-screen and objectified amusement, we get ferocious subjectivity, intensity of focus, bipolar exhalations in our face. Kerrigan makes it look easy: Keane was shot on the shoulder in Manhattan, centers on a single character, and is composed almost entirely with a one-scene-one-shot reductivism. At times it feels like a film lost from the Dardennes’ closet; at others, it’s as distressing an immersion in first-person intimacy as you’ll ever have outside time spent with your own deranged friends and family.
Kerrigan’s Beckettian lost one is a man any urban dweller knows well: essentially homeless, absolutely alone, living on disability, and borderline psychotic. We meet Keane (Damian Lewis) first pleading with Port Authority clerks for help finding his daughter, who (he says) disappeared months earlier on his watch from a boarding platform nearby. Of course, whether or not this is even remotely factual is a question Kerrigan not only doesn’t answer, but finds irrelevant—Keane is a painfully specific figure but at the same time a totem, lean and frightening, for a morass of modern anxieties. That might be this phenomenal film’s emergent achievement: Its raw hopelessness is its universality. If Keane’s life is a hurricane of delusions and terrifying mistakes, it’s nothing we can’t easily imagine for ourselves.
Damian Lewis, vet of HBO’s Band of Brothers, commits himself to the role’s interior shitstorm with unrelenting energy, and it’s a triumph of post-Method selflessness when you also consider the claustrophobic proximity of DP John Foster’s camera, and the fact that the scenes play out in real time, in crowded midtown hubs. The film leaves its first purple bruises as Keane hunts the bleak New York in-between zones for clues to a daughter it is clear he’ll never find (times of day and bystanding strangers take on nerve-racking importance), but sometimes he forgets his mission, scores coke, and even gets laid in a nightclub bathroom. He crosses flop-hotel paths with a desperate mom (Amy Ryan) and her pensive seven-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin), giving Keane cause on one hand to try to realign himself into something socially presentable, and on the other to rescue himself with magical thinking and a hair-raising re-enactment of the dreadful moment when he thinks his life went wrong.
Kerrigan might well believe that movies tell us too much about what we should already know, and so the story material churned up between the scabby-knuckled Keane and Breslin’s sleepy-voiced schoolgirl happens largely in your head—what he’s thinking, what he’s going to do, what kind of transmission between memory and reality is fueling his actions, what sort of risk the little life- battered tyke is obliviously running. Once baby boomers took over Hollywood, parental anxiety became the commonest trope in movies, but Kerrigan (a recent father) knows its latent power, and keeps his cards face down.
Kerrigan’s third complete film, Keane revisits textual avenues he explored in his first, Clean, Shaven (1994); now there are fewer ellipses and a saner grip on psychology. They’re both astonishing experiences, but while Keane is more incisive, its purity of execution musters some blowback. The spectacle of Lewis’s public meltdowns, with the hovering cameraman inches away, sometimes trumps the character. At the same time, we are not permitted to see very much more than what the soul-sick protagonist sees—visually, the movie has the warp and woof of an OD—and the cumulative effect is quietly appalling. (Expect to crave distance, like a cutaway shot from across the room or street.)
All the more dazzling, then, is the sly emotional arc and invisibly heroic denouement—both more clearly read on a second viewing, if you could conceive of wanting to see Keane twice. And although Lewis holds the film in his bloodshot gaze, Breslin is its secret weapon: utterly convincing, wary but naive, saddened by adult inconstancy but heart-rendingly susceptible to hope and attention. For her part, Ryan needs no expository dialogue to project her weary, cash-in-the-pocket mother: The weather of disappointment has left her limp and bitter. Kerrigan may have a Cassavetes-like brilliance in nailing down naturalistic performances, but it scans like the life we know, in hard times—watching people fray and implode when you’re waiting on a line in some decaying public office, or stuck in Port Authority wishing you could be anywhere else.