Two people sit on a bench at a train station, in what will probably be the last few moments they share before parting company forever.
“It’s okay, I love you”, she says.
“I love you too”, he replies, a single tear rolling down his cheek.
This might be the closing sequence of any number of romantic dramas, from Brief Encounter onwards – but in Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, love and loss have become altogether more urgent themes, stripped of all romance.
Ever since (and perhaps even before) his six-year-old daughter went missing at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal last September, William Keane (Damian Lewis) has been coming apart at the seams. When he is not obsessively staking out the bus station in search of her supposed abductor, he is losing himself in alcohol and drug abuse, and looking for love in nightclub toilets. He is unemployed, unhinged and utterly alone, with only his disability cheques to keep him in food and lodgings.
But then one day Lyn (Amy Ryan) and her seven-year-old daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin) move into the room next door at the dosshouse where he is staying. Keane helps them out financially, a delicate friendship develops, and soon he is being entrusted with looking after Kira while her mother is away. Keane sees in Kira what he lost in his own daughter, and for a brief time becomes a loving and protective father again – but with Kira about to rejoin her natural father up north, Keane’s worst demons seem set to return.
As an exploration of madness and loss, Keane is reminiscent of films like Dark Water, The Forgotten, Flightplan and most of all Kerrigan’s own extraordinary debut Clean, Shaven – which also concerned a mentally unstable father in search of his daughter. But where Keane differs from all these films is in the unflinching objectivity of its presentation.
Here there is no attempt to reflect visually the protagonist’s inner turmoil with ghosts, aliens, dream sequences or jarring hallucinations. Instead the camera simply follows Keane about his daily routines in long handheld takes focussed for the most part in medium close-up on his distraught face. In an ultra-realist approach, the locations are genuine places rather than studio sets, and there is no external soundtrack or narration (apart from Keane’s dark mutterings to himself) to modulate and manipulate the viewer’s response to the human drama on-screen.
This disarmingly plain style creates tensions of its own. What we see may appear to be simple, unmediated actuality, but at the same time it lacks any kind of authoritative context (leaving aside what is revealed by Keane himself, who is a most unreliable expositor) – and so an element of questioning doubt emerges, fostered by our own prejudices concerning the mentally ill. Was Keane’s daughter really kidnapped? Might Keane himself have been, and still be, the real threat? And is it even certain that he ever had a daughter?
Sure answers lie beyond the scope of the film, but it is unquestionably a vivid portrait of a man who is suffering deep loss and desperate isolation, and who has at least the capacity to be an excellent father and a decent neighbour – when, that is, he is not being crippled by psychotic episodes, breaking into other people’s rooms, or attacking complete strangers.
All the performances in Keane are brutally naturalistic, but from beginning to end this is Lewis’ film. As the camera constantly scrutinises his face for distress, pain and occasional, welcome moments of calm, he becomes the (damaged) heart and (lost) soul of every scene. It is rare enough for human experience to be filtered through so marginalised a figure – but rarer still that it should be shown in such stark nakedness, and yet remain so compelling. Only Kerrigan’s previous Clean, Shaven surpasses it as a sympathetic study of a man unravelled.