Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC
Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Keane is director Lodge Kerrigan’s third feature film and was executively produced by Steven Soderbergh. Considered by the Austin Chronicle as “one of the great, though largely unheralded, filmmakers of our time,” Kerrigan’s two previous films are Clean, Shaven (1994) – about an individual with schizophrenia attempting to reclaim his daughter from her adoptive family, and Claire Dolan (1998) – the story of an Irish immigrant prostitute who works in Manhattan.
Keane is just as bleak, ambiguous and challenging to view. Its plot appears to be initially straightforward albeit harrowing.
We first meet William Keane (an astounding Damien Lewis – of Dreamcatcher, An Unfinished Life and Band of Brothers fame) in New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal frantically searching for his six-year-old daughter who was apparently abducted there months before when he momentarily lost track of her.
Guilty and tormented, his relentless and urgent searching dominates the remainder of the film. But because of Keane’s erratic behavior and tenuous grip on reality, it becomes less clear to the viewer as to whether Keane actually had a daughter and, if so, whether she was abducted.
When Keane meets Lynn, a struggling young mother (a convincing Amy Ryan) and Kira, her seven-year-old daughter (an introspective Abigail Breslin) who are also staying at the same transient hotel, Keane offers to financially help them – presumably to compensate in some way for his own circumstances. He quickly becomes more involved with the pair and emotionally connected to Kira. Precipitously entrusted to care for the daughter when the mother temporarily leaves to clarify her marital relationship, it is unclear whether redemption or temptation is at hand. The child’s potential danger and Keane’s uncertain ability to hold on to reality fuel the dramatic suspense of the closing scenes. Keane is remarkable for the subtlety and accuracy of its depiction of mental illness.
The apparent significant duration of Keane’s emotional difficulties is conveyed not by flashbacks or an explicit past psychiatric history but by his simple act of cashing a disability cheque.
The bleak world Keane has come to inhabit also denotes the all too familiar world of chronic psychiatric illness – both in terms of what’s present (his familiarity in the world of flophouses, fruitless job searches, and momentary relief with alcohol, cocaine and reckless sex) and what isn’t (the absence of friends, family and professional help).
The portrayal of Keane’s intermittent psychosis will also ring true for the experienced mental health professional. There is a remarkable scene in a bar where Keane’s desperate effort to drown out what must be unbearable auditory hallucinations are inferred by his frantic and repeated insistence to the bartender ‘to turn up the music.’ And Keane’s distressed efforts to contain his response to his hallucinations while caring for Kira in a public skating rink also resonate with heartbreaking accuracy. And finally there is Keane’s ever present agitation – relentlessly conveyed by a constantly moving and tormented Damien Lewis and enhanced by Kerrigan’s cinematic technique of ensuring Keane’s face is front and center in virtually every scene. The intense and claustrophobic focus leaves the viewer both riveted and drained.
In a less clinical way, Kerrigan’s psychological sophistication and sensitivity as a filmmaker is also apparent during Keane’s tender and paternal interactions with Kira. Their scenes together – the bargaining with French fries, the gentle support and encouragement provided on an ice rink and with homework, the tender bedtime rituals – all resonate with the smaller real moments of parenting and subtly suggest that Keane may indeed have prior paternal experience. Clearly Keane is at his healthiest interacting with Lynn and Kira – for brief moments the trio attains the makeshift structure of a family unit that just might reflect a mirror world of Keane’s recent past. For an otherwise isolated Keane, these moments of trust and normality also speak to the healing power of relationships.
If one feels compelled to assign William Keane a psychiatric clinical diagnosis, it’s hard to ignore what appear to be his longstanding psychotic symptoms. But it is clear Keane is not truly a character study about an individual with schizophrenia or chronic psychiatric illness. Indeed one could even argue that the loss of his child – whether real or delusional – has precipitated Keane’s current psychotic distress de novo and that he was previously well (or at least emotionally stable).
Ultimately Keane is a film about grief. Whether his daughter’s disappearance actually occurred or not is irrelevant. Unflinching and unromantic, this is a film about a mourning father’s tortured search for his missing daughter. The resulting emotional toil is unforgettable.