Saturday, September 23, 2006

Review - Keane

Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (which thankfully has nothing to do with the former footballer or the painfully insipid band) is a film about the kind of person we see on the streets every day. You know the type; head down, purposeful stride, muttering incoherently under his breath. Occasionally he’ll try to engage a stranger in conversation, or start ranting at some imaginary foe, and most of us will simply do our best to ignore him, avoiding eye contact as we hurriedly walk away.

But this time Lodge Kerrigan won’t let us look away. In his sensational, riveting film, Kerrigan places William Keane (Damian Lewis) front and centre, making him the focus of every single scene, making us see the world through his eyes. Almost a year ago William’s six year-old daughter Sophie disappeared while she was in his care at a New York bus terminal, and he has subsequently become a man on a mission. Wracked with guilt, he spends his days searching every nook and cranny of the area in which Sophie was last seen; he accosts baffled passers-by with a old newspaper report, pleading with anyone and everyone for information on the little girl in the photograph. When his perennially fruitless days draw to a close, William Keane loses his nights in a haze of booze, drugs and random sex.

William Keane is not an easy character to like or even empathise with at first, and many viewers will understandably balk at the idea of spending 100 minutes in the company of such an obsessive, unstable character; a man whose grip on sanity is tenuous at best. Kerrigan doesn’t make it easy for us either; shooting with handheld cameras, no musical score, and utilising natural light only to ensure no hint of fakery can shroud the film’s raw emotions. It sure is a tough journey, but those viewers who do stick with Keane will be richly rewarded.

In fact, there is one very good reason to give Keane your full attention. In the challenging lead role Damian Lewis produces a display of staggering skill and bravery, giving an incredibly authentic depiction of a man staring into the abyss. Kerrigan keeps his camera close to Lewis, probing away inches from his face as if he’s literally trying to get inside his head, and the actor responds by inhabiting the role of William Keane to an unnerving degree. He mutters unintelligibly to himself like a man possessed, a tangible sense of fear and confusion is constantly recognisable in his eyes, he seems completely lost in his own thoughts. Sometimes his brittle self-control slips, and he lashes out violently at anyone who gets too close. These outbursts are abrupt, unpleasant and terrifyingly real.

For the first forty-odd minutes of Keane, Lewis’s remarkable performance is all we have to work with. Kerrigan doesn’t take time to indulge in any sort exposition or scene-setting before throwing us into William Keane’s story, and for a while we find ourselves as disoriented as the central character. Slowly, Kerrigan feeds us scraps of information, and we gradually begin to piece together this portrait of a man whose life is defined solely by this quixotic quest he has dedicated himself to. At one point he catches sight of a piece of purple cloth lying in a field - just like the jacket Sophie was wearing when she disappeared - and his explosion of excitement at this brief ray of hope all but cracks the lens, until the crushing disappointment second later when he discovers nothing but a tatty old piece of cloth. Still, his search continues.

Wisely, Kerrigan understands that the viewers’ patience with William Keane’s futile search will probably not stretch to feature length, and halfway through the picture he throws a couple of new characters into the mix. William makes contact with Lynn (Amy Ryan) a woman living in the same run-down hotel as him while her husband is away looking for work. He has been gone for some time now, and when William hears that she is struggling to pay the rent he happily lends her some cash. Lynn is not alone, though, and she has a young daughter named Kira (the amazing young actress Abigail Breslin) in tow, a girl who is pretty much the same age as Sophie was when she disappeared. The introduction of these new faces into William’s life gives Keane some sort of narrative shape, and takes the film into increasingly troublesome territory.

Soon after their first meeting, Lynn asks William to pick up Kira from school when she’s unable to do so, and she also entrusts him with her daughter’s care when she has to go out of town unexpectedly. This plot development will require a leap of faith on behalf of the audience, as they watch a mother hand her daughter over to a man she barely knows, but we are so involved in Keane’s story by this point that few will quibble. William treats Kira with care and attention, and we see glimpses of the caring father he must have been for Sophie. The pair grow closer and William appears to be using her as a lifeline, to slowly ease himself back into the real world. William still has moments when he comes close to snapping, but the presence of this girl seems to calm the waters which rage beneath his surface. Some filmmakers might give this relationship between an unbalanced stranger and trusting child an exploitative paedophile shading, but even when William washes Kira’s hair in the shower his affection never seems anything other than paternal.

There is, however, a final twist which makes the film’s closing moments even tougher to experience than what has gone before. Despite his best efforts to look after Kira, William makes some decisions while she’s in his care which place her in peril, and Kerrigan ratchets up the tension in this final 15 minutes to an almost unbearable pitch. It is astonishing, emotionally lacerating filmmaking which left me breathless.

The final words in Keane are “I love you”, and the film fully earns the tears this emotional climax provokes. Kerrigan ends the film on a conciliatory - even hopeful - note, rewarding those viewers who have invested so much in William Keane’s journey. This is one of the best films of the year - an unflinching and gripping drama which completely immerses us into this man’s tumultuous world. When we were first introduced to William Keane we might have been quick to dismiss him as ‘crazy’, and be unlikely to care about the circumstances which made him this way; but when the final credits have rolled we just see him as a damaged soul, as human and fragile as any one of us. That is the true triumph of Keane.