A side effect of becoming a parent is that situations you could have handled before in movies without a ruffled hair suddenly have you chewing your nails. Movies about missing children always affected me in the abstract; now they prey directly upon fears I not only understand but share. Yet sometimes that’s all they do. The Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan, about a widowed mother trying to convince other airline passengers that she brought her little girl on board, should have tied me in knots. Instead, I got bored and restless. The most interesting thing about the plot—the idea that she might be hallucinating out of grief—is never really in question, because that’s not the way the star of a big-budget action movie behaves. Besides, we’ve seen the kid.
Keane, on the other hand, stole my sleep. The plot is superficially similar: a distraught man, Keane, seeks clues to the disappearance of his daughter from the New York Port Authority bus terminal. A stammering, coke-snorting, possibly schizophrenic man who lives week to week off disability checks in a transient hotel, he quizzes strangers in encounters that look improvised on the fly. No one remembers her. When the father asks the terminal staffers, “Remember me? I bought tickets here last September,” we realize it is unlikely she will be found.
The movie is not a whodunit: it refuses to answer whether the girl existed or not. It faces a scarier, bleaker possibility, that if she did exist, her vanishing may be all that’s left of her—an endless unsolvable search that gives the father’s unmoored life its only tether. The suspense Keane generates—which had me almost sick from worry—comes not from artificial inducements like ticking bombs, but from simple human concern about how and why its characters will act. When Keane befriends a secretive fellow tenant with a girl (Abigail Breslin) roughly his daughter’s age, we watch with queasy apprehension as he strokes the child’s hair. None of the options are comforting, even the kindest one.
The writer-director, Lodge Kerrigan, made a memorable 1994 film called Clean, Shaven that burrowed without relent into a schizophrenic parent’s paranoid crack-up. Here, Kerrigan plants his camera at arm’s length from Keane and stays too close for comfort, following him through New York locations in jagged chunks of semi-documentary realism. When we’re ready to scream for distance, he edges closer. He’s especially adept at in-camera editing that forces us to waver woozily between Keane’s point of view and that of a nervous spectator, as if we were shackled together visually.
Damian Lewis, who plays Keane, appeared in the miniseries Band of Brothers and the loony-tune Stephen King thriller Dreamcatcher, but neither promised the depth or intensity of his performance here. He goes through so many emotional fluctuations that when Kerrigan does cut within a scene, the effect unfortunately resembles highlights from an actor’s audition reel. Like Keane’s mental state, though, his expressions are shifting sand; the character’s sickening slips from parental tenderness to delusion have a tragic helplessness. Keane is terrifying precisely because it’s not a thriller. It understands that beneath every parent’s fear of losing a child lies another, more insidious terror: forgetting.