Driven to Distraction
By Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Lodge Kerrigan, U.S., Magnolia Pictures

Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane begins unceremoniously, shoving the uninitiated viewer into a tight, grubby scenario. The film tracks an obviously emotionally disturbed man, William Keane (British actor Damian Lewis), through New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, where his daughter may or may not have been kidnapped—the narrative remains noncommittal—a year prior. And, if nothing else, New York City native Kerrigan’s movie deserves credit as a contemporary NYC film that completely eschews the metropolis’ big, obvious scenic effects. The director opts for claustrophobic closeness over panorama; the topography of New York and North Bergen, Jersey indistinguishably smutch together in this film’s drear world, forming one continuous catacomb of exposed beams and naked brick, service-entrances and public restrooms, bulletproof glass and wet underpasses.

In the Port Authority scenes, as for much of the film, Kerrigan keeps his camera perched, Dardennes-style, on our protagonist’s shoulder, swaying with his steps and latched onto his bland, pink face. From these huddled close-ups our p.o.v. pans and veers in concert with Keane’s attention; it’s an attempt to find the visual equivalent of the nauseatingly close, crisp foley work of Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven: subjective cinematic psychosis. Shots break from Keane and his huffed, self-absorbed monologues only to hang on meaningless, red herring details—a clock reading ‘4:26,’ perhaps—which he turns over and over with the intent scrutiny of a nonsense detective, striving to extract inscrutable meanings from his trail of non-clues.

This fractious whodunit material, and the extended bender that punctuates it, is rough, rigorous stuff, and it works on its own small-scale terms. But the cracks really start to appear in the film’s latter half, which shifts focus to Keane’s tentative interactions—tics staunchly held in check—with a wan, hard-up mother (Amy Ryan) who haunts the Jersey motel where he’s staying, and the strange paternal relationship that he develops with her daughter, Kira (Abigail Breslin), a pale, bloodless little thing with a high, luminous forehead. The trio’s soft scenes of makeshift family can’t, in and of themselves, be accused of more than badly overreaching for shabby-sad beauty and nocturnal solemnity, though a scene where Lewis and Ryan slow dance like awkward 7th graders probably deserves an incredulous snort. What’s more off-putting is the tension that Kerrigan gradually escalates with the development of these relationships and what this tension effectively reduces Keane’s already under-drawn character to: an accident waiting to happen.

In spite of the camera’s near-constant proximity to Lewis, keeping the film ostensibly in first-person singular mode, the movie’s attitude toward its protagonist’s mental state strikes me as pretty unsophisticated and hands-off. Keane’s schizophrenia is used as a force of sustained suspense, and the uncertainty of his capacity for violence—specifically toward the little girl—is kept luridly dangling over the audience. We see Keane muttering conspiracies down his sleeves, randomly lunging at a stranger in the street, and then tenderly attending to Kira’s bath, which leaves us only to guess as to when the proverbial other shoe will drop. I’m sure a pretty good argument could be formed that all of this is intended to call into question the viewer’s own attitudes and discomforts with the mentally ill, but I would still insist that it’s a pretty crude device to build a movie around, and it implies a totally wrongheaded attitude toward Keane’s character. Despite its grimy realist trappings, such callow thriller tropes place Keane in “problem” picture territory—with the character’s condition as an unsolved puzzle—rather than providing the fully-realized, empathetic character study which the title suggests. The “Will he?” and “When?” sources of suspense here aren’t far from the hanging “Did he?” that looms across Clean, Shaven, and Keane’s faults were great enough to reveal new, basic weaknesses in Kerrigan’s first feature which were overwhelmed by that film’s detail-oriented proficiency and the astonishing emergence of Peter Greene.

All that stayed with me after Keane was an unhappy impression of all-abiding tonal uniformity in the hush-tone vespers of dialogues, unhandsome, shallow mise-en-scène, and rigidly adhered-to aesthetic tenets. This extends to Keane’s character, though Lewis, whose face suggests a slightly de-evolved Greg Kinnear, does deserve some credit for sheer chutzpah; Kerrigan and Lewis’s willingness to keep a scene playing long after considerations of pacing and comfort would demand that it should end results in some of the movie’s few real frissons. The best example of this is Keane’s spluttered jukebox sing-along, which hangs on the screen just long enough to travel from embarrassing to engaging to boring and back around to engaging again. But if Lewis’s much-touted performance is committed, unself-conscious stuff, it’s also everything you’ve come to expect from a schizo star turn. One never doubts the actor’s devotion; trenches of worry are dug into his face, and his dry crying jags are more unsettling than histrionic. But for all that workmanship, there’s something absent; Keane is never articulated as more than a sadness or a sickness, and what’s sorely missing in this focused performance is an element of the unexpected. I was aching to see Lewis play something other than harried, to just allow himself the pointless indulgence of a sudden idiot grin or a nonsense joke, to vacillate even for a moment from the film’s chartered course of quiet and gray. He doesn’t, and the result is one of the tidiest movies about madness I’ve ever seen; much as it pains me to admit this, Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy, that swaying junk heap of tossed-together scenes, seems like a truer, chancier film and—oh, irony of ironies—Leo “Titanic” DiCaprio’s work in the bloated holiday-season Oscar-juggernaut The Aviator, despite being saddled with Psych 101 motivations, is a lot more complex and human than anything in either of these indie darlings.

Therein lies the problem; Kerrigan has been praised—as he was at this most recent NYFF—as a true independent, in the sixties NYC sense of the word, before Fox Searchlight and the Edward Burns filmography neutralized any significance that the term might’ve once held. And reading up on Kerrigan, I found it difficult not to respect his ethos: Keane was shot on the fly, for under a million bucks, and all of this out of the still-smoldering debris of a catastrophic, aborted 2002 project, In God’s Hands. So I feel a little guilty for not liking his movie more. But grading Keane on such terms seems, at best, a specious critical paradigm; I have to think back to my teen-punk days, when I would try to convince myself that some hardcore band’s murky EP, replete with a xeroxed cover culled from an art school drop-out’s portfolio, was—by virtue of the group’s being signed to Skullfukk Records—somehow better or more daring than Steely Dan.

That said, I feel like a postscript addressed to the film world’s Darren Aronofskys is due, though I’m sure they’re too busy tackling slopes of Colombian marching powder bought with Warner Brothers’ cash to check out no-name Young Turk film journals. It is true that American independent film desperately needs more directors like Kerrigan, willing to grapple tough, uninviting material in tough, unwelcoming ways; filmmakers who will approach their medium and their marginality as a means towards something other than Sundance calling cards, made only in the hopes of one day being able to huff major studio dong. But I’m afraid what the indies don’t need is more movies like Keane.