Keane Review

We first meet William Keane (Damian Lewis) in New York Port Authority. He spends his days obsessively searching for his daughter who disappeared the year before, at the age of six. At night he blocks everything out with drink and drugs. Then he meets a divorcee, Lynn (Amy Ryan), and her seven-year-old daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin) and strikes up a friendship with them. His life has changed for the better…or has it?

When so many people use independent films as calling cards for Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see that there are still true independents around. They are men and women working outside the system, on very small budgets, making films with subject matter and approaches hardly designed to go down big at multiplexes. Lodge Kerrigan is one such filmmaker. Keane, his third feature to be released, is a companion piece to his first, Clean, Shaven. (I have not seen Kerrigan’s second feature, Claire Dolan, a character study of a prostitute, played by the late Katrin Cartlidge. A third feature, In God’s Hands has never been shown due to negative damage.) They both feature driven characters – neither of them mentally whole – obsessively searching for lost daughters. While Peter Winter’s (Peter Greene) daughter in the earlier film certainly exists as we see her in scenes with her foster-parents, there are a good few hints that Keane’s lost daughter may be imaginary. Peter is a diagnosed schizophrenic; Keane’s condition isn’t specified and may not even be recognised (though in one scene we learn that he is on disability benefit). But he is clearly not stable: he talks to himself, is given to sudden outbursts and in one scene almost picks a fight with a bartender who refuses to turn a jukebox up to the level Keane wants.

Film is naturally a third-person medium, experiments with subjective camera aside – we observe the characters from outside. Kerrigan’s strategy is to put us inside his central character’s head as much as possible. He shoots with a handheld camera, often in tight close up, and if there is a shot which Keane is not in, I missed it. Sound is also important: Keane uses the possibilities of multichannel sound to create a consistently immersive mix, especially in the exterior scenes, which may well have been recorded live.

Finally, both Clean, Shaven and Keane rely on committed, career-best work from their leading actors. Damian Lewis gives a phenomenal performance that should have gained him an Oscar nomination had this film been more widely shown. Given that he's onscreen almost throughout, it's a demanding role, but he carries it off superbly: Keane's desperation and his on-the-edge lifestyle are manifest in Lewis's face. Young Abigail Breslin is engaging without a shred of cuteness. The rest of the cast are on screen too briefly to register much. John Foster’s naturalistic photography is first-rate, especially given the sub-$1 million budget. There’s no music score, only source music on screen: even the credits proceed in silence.

Keane shows similarities to the work of the Dogme filmmakers and to the Dardenne brothers – and, from further back, there’s quite a lot in common with Paul Schrader here. The film takes you on a journey that’s certainly not comfortable and definitely hard to shake off. You watch the final sequence in dread as to what you think might happen. I’ll leave you to find out if it does.

The review copy is the Canadian release from Seville Pictures, which is encoded for Region 1 only.

The DVD is transferred in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Given the number of close-ups and the use of a hand-held camera, tight composition is not on the agenda. Also present is some grain, no doubt inevitable due as much to the strategy of shooting in natural light (if that isn’t the case, it’s a very convincing likeness) as budget constraints. Given that this was actually shot on film – many films at this budget level nowadays would have used digital video almost automatically, including the great majority of the Dogme films that Keane resembles – this looks fine to me. I haven’t seen the film in a cinema, but I’m confident that this is how Keane is intended to look.

There are two sound choices: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (analogue/ProLogic surround). I describe above how essential sound design is to Kerrigan’s films and won’t repeat myself here except to say that both tracks provide a very immersive experience, with the 5.1 just having the edge. Unfortunately the only subtitles available are French ones, this being a Canadian disc of an English-language film Leaving out English subtitles is a regrettable choice.

Considering how well Kerrigan and his executive producer Steven Soderbergh related to each other on their commentary for the Criterion edition of Clean, Shaven, it’s a pity that they don’t repeat the experience here. Even a Kerrigan solo commentary would have been interesting. However, there is one very substantial extra here, namely a whole different cut of the film. Despite saying “alternate director’s cut” on the menu (the packaging is more accurate), this is actually a version put together by Soderbergh more or less to spark ideas and discussion with Kerrigan. The latter put together his own version, which is the main one on this disc, but both men agreed that the alternative cut was worth including in its own right. The above is information I gathered after doing some digging: it’s an explanation that should really be included somewhere on the DVD.

The most noticeable difference is that the Soderbergh cut is shorter (78:05 instead of 93:26). Soderbergh begins with Keane lying asleep on a grass verge and establishes Keane’s state of mind, not introducing the plot about the missing daughter for some twenty-five minutes. This makes this subplot seem something of a red herring, or more than the Kerrigan cut does. Like the main feature this is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic, but the only soundtrack option here is the Dolby Surround track.

The only other extra is the theatrical trailer, which is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 2:06. It foregrounds the missing-child elements of the story, making this film out to be more of a thriller than it is.

You have to be grateful that there are filmmakers like Lodge Kerrigan about, even if they have to work on tiny budgets and have difficulties financing their work. Kerrigan’s films take you places that out of your normal comfort zone, but they reward the searching out. Keane is just such a film, which showcases a commanding performance from Damian Lewis. It’s presented well on this disc, despite some shortcomings.

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