Keane (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

The fine art of loitering
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The Independent Culture

Lodge Kerrigan's remarkable Keane is a film to make you feel guilty about sidestepping those random, jabbering, strangers who accost you on the street. Nutters, I suppose, is how they would usually be described. William Keane (Damian Lewis) bears the classic symptoms, exuding pure anxiety as he prowls through the Port Authority bus terminal in New York, talking to himself and beseeching passers-by with questions about his seven-year-old daughter. She disappeared there six months ago while in his care, and Keane returns obsessively to the station to replay the events of that day.

It gradually dawns that we are in the company of a man not merely distraught but disturbed. Kerrigan explored the nightmare of schizophrenia in his bleak, expressionist debut Clean, Shaven (1994), which also featured a father trying to reconnect with his young daughter. Here, entering the story in medias res, the director is enigmatic about Keane's mental derangement: has it been triggered by his loss, or is this a long-term affliction that's been exacerbated? Either way, with the camera tight on his face, it becomes a harrowing and piteous sight. Everything he does seems to tremble on the verge of mania. He scrubs himself in a public toilet with a desperation that only Lady Macbeth could rival; he goes to a bar, puts a song on the jukebox and begs the bartender to crank up the volume, as if it might drown out the sounds inside his head.

The film resists explaining Keane, and the little information we glean about his life - he's been divorced, has no fixed income aside from a "disability" benefit - prompts only misgivings. The more he whispers to himself ("You have to be presentable when you get her back") the less you're inclined to trust him. Was his daughter really abducted? Does he actually have a daughter at all? We never get to read the newspaper clipping he shows to the startled staff at Port Authority, so the very substance of his distress becomes mysterious. What's so unnerving is the mercurial nature of the man. There's no telling, for instance, why he suddenly attacks a commuter.

The film enters an urgent new phase when Keane befriends a defeated young woman, Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her seven-year-old daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin), neighbours along the corridor in his cheap and cheerless hotel. Initially distrustful, Lynn asks him to pick Kira up after school, and you almost hold your breath wondering if he'll turn out to have any parenting skills worth the name. (It's surely significant that he doesn't tell Lynn about his daughter's abduction). The friendship that develops between him and the girl is touching, but it's also disquieting, for we never know exactly what sort of need the child is answering for him. When Keane sneaks into Lynn's hotel room during the day and looks through their family photographs, the scene is poised on a knife-edge between tenderness and creepiness. It's much the same when he spies on mother and daughter; we sense his yearning to protect them, yet you can't help fear that his methods would freak them out.

When a film concentrates so much of its focus on a single character - Keane is in every frame - the strength of the performance is key. Damian Lewis begins at such an intense pitch that you wonder if he'll have anywhere to go for the remaining hour and a half. Nothing in Lewis's film career (the awful Dreamcatcher is still repeating on me) has approached the stature of his television performances in The Forsyte Saga and Band of Brothers - until now, that is. Like De Niro in Taxi Driver (another lost soul wandering New York) Lewis creates a kind of heat around himself, the heat of someone in an exhausting and interminable argument with his own body. This purgatory of self-torment manifests itself in obvious ways, such as the raw scabs on his knuckles, and the moment he tells himself, "please, stop it"; but it's signalled, too, in the expressiveness of his mouth, which trembles or tightens to a slot, and in haunted eyes that suddenly brim with the sheer, bloody, hopelessness of being him. It's a quiet performance that speaks volumes - a landmark.

Kerrigan's camera stays as close as a shadow to Keane, stalking him almost; at times one is reminded of the Dardenne brothers' spare portraits of loss, and the paradoxical way that emotion is discernible even when all that we see is the back of a character's head. Kerrigan is apparently a fan of their film The Son, another story of parental bereavement that shades into pathology. Only once, I think, does he briefly lose faith in his own minimalism, in a sequence where Keane somehow ends up having cocaine and sex in a nightclub toilet. Such an episode seems quite beyond the capability of this profoundly lonely man.

His reaching out to the mother and daughter, on the other hand, feels utterly believable in its awkwardness, and the suspense of the last 20 minutes, as Keane contemplates an irrevocable decision, is well-nigh intolerable. Praise be, for the second time in three weeks, to Abigail Breslin, as Kira, younger here than she was as Olive in Little Miss Sunshine yet just as unselfconscious, and just as truthful to the shyness of a seven-year-old. The phrase "I love you" has become as devalued in movies as "have a nice day" or "take care", to the point where it barely even registers anymore. The last words of this film are "I love you", and suddenly, miraculously, they come to life again. It's partly because Lodge Kerrigan has withheld so much, and partly because of two outstanding performances.