Masterfully Harrowing Psychodrama
by Isaac Feldberg | Roger Ebert.com | August 18, 2022
Across a body of work both compassionate and uncompromising, the filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan has maintained a distinctive physical proximity to the emotionally isolated characters he depicts living in society’s margins.
“Clean, Shaven,” his 1993 debut, worked rigorously to approximate the inner reality of a paranoid schizophrenic, conveying his visual and auditory hallucinations in all their abrasive force and abstraction. 1998’s “Claire Dolan,” meanwhile, applied a chillier, more disassociated kind of gaze to its study of an upscale New York sex worker, observing appointments through the windows of looming glass high-rises as if peering inside a fishbowl.
But it was with 2004’s “Keane,” his third feature (and first co-produced by Steven Soderbergh), that Kerrigan secured his reputation as a singular, celebrated voice of the modern American independent cinema. Starring Damian Lewis, this masterfully harrowing psychodrama—which returns to theaters this month in a new 4K restoration—first finds its title character frantically pacing New York’s Port Authority, in search of the six-year-old daughter he tells passerby was abducted at the terminal months earlier.
Muttering to himself in a feverish effort to make sense of the disappearance, Keane retraces his steps, or at least seems to. Abruptly, he boards a bus, consulting the time as if piecing together another clue before he hurriedly gets off again. As the mainly handheld camera (by DP John Foster) remains uncomfortably close to Keane, hovering by his shoulder or whipping around to follow his darting line of sight, the character’s disorientation becomes ours. Through fleeting glimpses of Keane’s mercurial daily motions—binging on cocaine and alcohol, hooking up in bathroom stalls, sleeping in the grass by a highway—that sensation is heightened. In lieu of objective explanation of his circumstances, we start to recognize the expressions moving across his face, flickers of anguish, rage, and misery that precede a course of action.
Once Keane arrives at a transient motel, meeting another tenant (Amy Ryan) whose daughter (Abigail Breslin) resembles in age the one he’s lost, Kerrigan’s film expands from an unnerving character portrait into a more ambiguous, affecting drama, one that has lost none of its power to immerse and unsettle in the 18 years since it first hit theaters.
Last weekend, Kerrigan spoke with RogerEbert.com about remastering and restoring “Keane,” staying close to his characters, and embracing the contradictions of their humanity.
How did you first become involved with the restoration?
When the rights reverted—they had been with Magnolia, the original distributor—Steven [Soderbergh] gave me a call and asked me if I’d be interested in remastering it. We thought about how to approach getting the film seen again, and I reached out to Ryan Krivoshey at Grasshopper Film, who expressed interest; that’s when Grasshopper came on board.
I usually watch a film once, with an audience, then I move on. For me, the most interesting part of filmmaking is the actual making of it. Though I’m extremely appreciative and grateful to present work, and I enjoy experiencing it with an audience, that’s not something I do repeatedly. And so, I hadn’t seen “Keane” in quite some time. We shot on 35mm, and we’d made prints through a photochemical [process.] This was back in 2004 or 2005, so we also did the standard film-to-video transfer, so it could be released on DVD and wherever else required a digital-tape format. The color space, back then, was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now, so I jumped at the chance [to restore it.]
In that process, I was really very fortunate. The new version is quite beautiful. It’s remarkable, the things that you can accomplish not only with color correction but also shaping light. It’s important to remember that we shot the vast majority of the film in live locations, with mixed lighting sources. It was really a challenge from a timing or color-correction point of view, right from the start. There were also a number of shots that, back in 2004 or 2005, we originally did visual effects for—not CGI, just to correct for shutter problems in the camera and light flicker from fluorescent lights. We did that in a photochemical process; they created a new internegative. What we did was go back, in this process, to the original camera negative. In the digital space, we were able to restore those shots and fix those technical problems. They look much better.
Given the aesthetic realism of “Keane,” what were your intentions when it came to restoring particular shots? How did you want this restoration to look?
When Keane takes Kira to the skating rink, for instance, there’s fluorescent lighting, so we were basically fighting the contrast between cyan and magenta. If you pull fluorescence, to pull cyan out of the skin tone, it’s going to veer towards magenta. [While restoring “Keane,”] we were able to find a much better balance, so the skin tones were more naturalistic. Within that, you have a choice as a director as to how much you want to beautify it or keep it well-balanced. At no point were we trying to make “Keane” look beautiful. That wasn’t the case … Beauty is such a political term already, and I really reject that. What we were trying to do is have it be more representative of the original intent, which opens an interesting question: When you’re remastering or restoring a film, 18 years down the road, how can you remember what the original intent was? That was part of the conversation. We tried as best we could to keep to the emotional and psychological intent of the film but, at the same time, find a better balance of color within it.
Did going back into the film lead you to reconsider or re-evaluate any elements of its narrative?
I was fortunate in restoring and remastering “Keane” to work with Kristina Boden, a remarkable editor who cut “Claire Dolan” and my episodes of “The Girlfriend Experience,” as well as some other TV work that I’ve done. She helped supervise the whole process, with me. We were discussing the potential of remastering “Claire Dolan” and asked ourselves, “Would we go in and try to re-edit it at any point? From a theoretical point of view, are there any elements that we think we should re-edit?” The same conversations extended to “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane.” I decided, at the end of the day, that it would have gone against the intent of the original film.
There were one or two small things that I considered [re-editing] with “Keane,” mostly in the [sound] mix, to rebalance some elements sonically. But the way we did it in the original film was the original intent. Now, I would perhaps do it differently, very slightly; we’re talking degrees. But my attitude is that I made that film then; it’s almost a document of that period, of that time. To change it, at any point later—to go back once it’s complete, once it’s screened, once we’ve signed off on it—you could theoretically do that, but it’s a gray area. In the more traditional art world, restoring paintings, experts come up with these questions all the time. How much do we clean an image? How much do we change it?
Throughout your body of work, you’ve pursued this visceral sense of proximity to your characters, but the characters you tend to focus on often conceal sides of themselves or convey a certain opacity. What draws you to that tension?
It’s twofold: I have a voyeuristic nature, which is what draws me to filmmaking to begin with. When I lived in New York, I’d take the subway, and I could literally stare at people 24 hours a day, just because I found their faces endlessly fascinating. Also, I’m fascinated by the way that people express themselves non-verbally. You have to decipher certain clues that they may or may not be giving you, and context that the environment may or may not be providing. It’s not a question that anyone can come to a definitive interpretation of. Rather, it’s trying to be attuned to the fact that people express themselves behaviorally. That, in essence, involves what you call a certain opacity. You can never be 100 percent sure; even when people express themselves through dialogue, you can’t be 100 percent sure. As a writer, I tend to shy away from exposition, and from explaining characters’ emotional or psychological states through dialogues. I avoid that as much as possible. I’m not particularly interested in having a character define themselves through dialogue. If you remove that, it asks the audience to come to their own conclusions.
There’s so much in “Keane,” as well, about the connection between mental illness and poverty, that psychologically destabilizing effect a state of constant transience and insecurity has on a person.
When people are mentally unstable or are facing challenges to their mental health, this often has severe economic consequences. A lot of people who suffer from serious mental illness at some point in their life end up homeless or transient. That’s just factual. I just tried to address and include that in the film.
One thing that is significantly important to me as a filmmaker is having real life in front of the camera: that you don’t know what’s going to happen, that it’s unpredictable, that it’s alive. It’s also important to write and present characters that are human—which by necessity entails that they are flawed—and not to shy away from their flaws. If they are human, they can do things that are self-destructive or destructive to other people, but they can also do things that are very kind at the same time. That contradiction is something I embrace and don’t reject. It feeds into showing a transient world that people usually want to reject or don’t want to see. So much of the role of filmmaking, literature and art is to present humanity in a more full way that sometimes people don’t want to see, to embrace that this is what it is. This is part of the human experience.
Damian Lewis gives such a compelling, forceful performance in “Keane.” He’s since found great success on television, winning an Emmy for “Homeland” and starring in “Billions.” What can you tell me about working with him on this film?
First off, he’s a remarkable human being. We’re close friends to this day. As a collaborator, he is almost ideal. His attitude as an actor is that, as an actor, he should be able to make anything believable. And so, he is willing to be challenged completely, as a performer. If you go to him and present a certain problem, some actors may recoil from that, but Damian embraces it. That’s all you can ask for. He’s so committed as a performer. He’s also incredibly intelligent.
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