Damian Lewis (NBC's Life) and Oscar nominees Abigail Breslin and Amy Ryan leave their sunnier sides behind in Lodge Kerrigan's Keane, a haunting look at one man's slide into madness.
Keane is an unforgettable film experience, and those aren't words that I choose lightly. It's probably number one with a bullet on the short list of "films that I think are brilliant, I still think of fondly, but I never want to sit through them again" list.
As a director, Lodge Kerrigan has a peculiar talent for placing the audience in the head of the mentally ill and the poverty-stricken. It's not something that screams "a night out at the movies," but ultimately, you leave his films feeling like you've explored another side of human nature and humanity—which is the reason we make and value art. Keane starts out uncomfortably, with long takes alternating with in-your-face close-ups of William Keane (Life's Damian Lewis) babbling incoherently in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, looking for his lost daughter. He's a handsome redheaded man, but disheveled and clearly close to the point of madness. The camera follows him closely, some takes stretching for endless minutes, and the crowds turn away. As he moves on, yelling into car windows, sleeping on an overpass, and crashing in a flophouse motel, it's difficult to watch. Or care. But stick with its rhythms.
Kerrigan turns an uncompromising eye on Keane's sanity. You feel what it's like in his jumbled brain. While he may have the mannerisms of somebody who was a father, who was living a "normal" life, he's clearly crossed the line into public nuisance, seen most strikingly in the scene where he belts out The Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" in the bar, his head moving like he's about to float out of and above his body.
It's a ghostly image for a ghost of a man. Keane may begin in his madness, but its queasy pull comes from when he meets a mother and her child, played by recent Oscar nominees Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine herself!). Ryan is a mother in a desperate situation: she has no money, she needs Keane to help. When he ends up looking after little Kira (Breslin, who is excellent)—you're convinced that something will go horribly wrong. Kerrigan may have created an atmosphere of creeping dread, but he's not out to make something grossly exploitative or, worse, inspirational; rather, their interactions are real, and the audience learns more about Keane and his motivations.
It's easy to discount the crazy—if you live in New York City, you do it every day, it's a survival tactic. Kerrigan's work makes you feel empathy towards a man who is perched on the edge of sanity, sliding slowly towards poverty and madness. You could easily be Keane, if things go a certain way in your life. It's a possibility.
That possibility—that tap dancing on a knife's edge—is part of what makes Keane difficult to watch. It's also what makes it a powerful and haunting work.
Bonus: I wouldn't be surprised if this Modest Mouse video for "Little Motel" was inspired, somewhat, by Keane.