PRINT September 2005


Lodge Kerrigan

WITH SIX YEARS between his second and third features, Lodge Kerrigan has at last come in from the cold, with a chilly, discomforting work that looks very much like a field report from the wilderness. Kerrigan, an independent filmmaker who lives in New York, made his debut in 1994 with Clean, Shaven, a lean, roughly textured portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic. His follow-up, Claire Dolan, was a study of isolated souls making fleeting contact in a cityscape of reflecting surfaces; the film’s glacially stylized quality was no doubt partly responsible for it being severely underrated when it premiered at Cannes in 1998.

Now Kerrigan has returned with an exemplary triumph of inspiration over adversity. In 2002 he shot what would have been his third feature, a drama about child abduction called In God’s Hands, but the entire film had to be abandoned because of damage to the negative. Unable to face reshooting the film, but still committed to its theme, Kerrigan came up with something related but quite different: Keane, which screened last year at the New York and Toronto Film festivals and at Cannes this past May, in the Directors’ Fortnight section. It opens in New York this month.

Another of Kerrigan’s depictions of extreme isolation, Keane is a companion piece to Clean, Shaven, a return to its harsh, low-budget aesthetic—to what might be called “abrasive intimacy.” Where his first film’s protagonist tries to defend himself against the enemies in his own head, the similarly anguished William Keane (British actor Damian Lewis) is at odds with external horrors: When we first meet him, at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan, he is searching for traces of his daughter Sophie, who disappeared the previous year, when she was six. Keane questions passers-by, showing them the girl’s picture, but they can’t, or won’t, help.

Then this ostensibly sane man abruptly goes off the rails, muttering under his breath in a running commentary that obsessively works through the circumstances of Sophie’s apparent abduction. On a sudden hunch, Keane catches a departing bus, then furiously insists on getting off again. He lives his life in panicky snatches: We see strangely discontinuous episodes of vodka and coke binges, and of a rushed, intensely claustrophobic sexual encounter with a woman in a club toilet cubicle. His is a life severed from all stabilizing roots—familial, geographic, even temporal—with only the name William Keane providing a reliable token of self.

The turning point comes when Keane encounters the inhabitants of another cell-like hotel room down the corridor from his own: Lynn Bedik (Amy Ryan) and her seven-year-old daughter, Kira (Abigail Breslin). Here, Kerrigan departs drastically from the sentimental movie conventions of what happens when lonely people befriend one another, and the film closes by challenging our habitual need—satisfied even in some of the most astringent art cinema—for redemptive endings to let us off the hook. We exit this film very much hooked—left dangling, indeed, on a huge question mark.

Keane’s mercilessly compelling quality lies partly in its central performance, partly in the technique adopted by Kerrigan and cinematographer John Foster. Damian Lewis is the focus of virtually every one of the film’s shots, most of them uncompromisingly long, the lens only occasionally drifting off of him for a few moments at a time. The mainly handheld camera (Keane is shot on 35 mm film) follows Lewis at oppressively close quarters, for much of the time in tight, head-and-shoulders framings, in a manner reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ minimalist-realist drama The Son (2002), another story of trauma-induced isolation. This proximity allows us to catch every nuance of Keane’s shifting expressions, and we become disquietingly familiar with certain looks and what they entail. The most ominous is a sudden, wary, sidelong glance that precedes loss of control. We even develop a heightened tactile awareness of his rough, freckled skin: As a sweaty Keane sniffs himself, we realize he’s a man who can no longer stand his own smell.

Keane’s feverish monologuing—he effectively narrates the film’s backstory in the first few minutes— is his method of restoring a coherent shape to an irreparably messy life. But there is a paranoid, mythomaniac edge to his acting out. The film’s most harrowing moments see him spinning a fantasy of understanding. As if parodying the Hollywood thriller commonplace of the intuitive detective experiencing lightning-bolt revelations, he excitedly babbles, “He’s here, he’s right here,” convinced that his unknown enemy—a child-stealing Erl-King of his own making—is watching from nearby.

As simple and even rudimentary as the story appears to be, scraps of information let slip throughout make us question exactly how long it has taken for Keane’s marriage and sanity to crumble so totally. And while the film can be read realistically as a portrayal of the consequences of trauma, there is also every possibility that Keane is actually composing his personal narrative as he goes along—an uncertainty reinforced teasingly by a couple of near-subliminal clues on the sound track at the very end. Keane ends with its hero suspended, perhaps permanently, in transit—but it leaves us confident that Lodge Kerrigan’s seemingly stalled career is magnificently back on the tracks.

Jonathan Romney is a London-based film critic.