Perched on the hero's shoulder like a parrot to a sea captain, the camera in Lodge Kerrigan's Keane would probably burrow into his head if it were technically possible, but it certainly doesn't keep a safe distance from a dangerous man. With unmistakable echoes of the Dardenne brothers' Palme D'Or-winning Rosetta, the film refines the first-person schizophrenia of Kerrigan's debut feature Clean, Shaven, which relayed the ricocheting thoughts of a haunted mind through a busy, highly charged soundtrack. In this case, those thoughts are more often muttered aloud in excited patterns like a mantra, and it soon becomes clear that the film's protagonist is doomed to relive the same trauma (real or imagined) on a permanent loop. Played with exceptional intensity by Damian Lewis, this unhinged loner searches obsessively and fruitlessly for a long-ago-abducted daughter, and behind his naked vulnerability lingers a loss so profound that it never leaves his consciousness.
As Keane opens, Lewis prowls around the Port Authority bus terminal where his 7-year-old daughter was abducted, accosting employees and passersby with a photo as if she'd been kidnapped minutes—not months, or even years—earlier. His days are spent either searching for the girl, mourning her disappearance, or preparing for her return: In the course of an afternoon, he purchases a new dress in her size, dashes frantically around an overpass after sighting the purple of her sweatshirt, and scrubs himself clean in a public restroom. At night, he occasionally salves the pain with cocaine or prostitutes, but mostly he retires to the ratty quarters of a transient hotel, where he's taken up semi-permanent residence. Out of what appears to be a sense of charity, Lewis helps single mother Amy Ryan and her own 7-year-old daughter Abigail Breslin make the rent, and he gradually insinuates himself into their lives, taking a special interest in the girl.
Throughout Keane, there's an unnerving feeling that Lewis is capable of anything, from harming himself to assaulting anyone around him. In one sequence, he convinces himself that the kidnapper plans to return to the scene of the crime, which leads him to beat up the first businessman that comes into his sight. Keane builds to a harrowing afternoon in which Lewis watches over Breslin, but their scenes together don't have the exploitative quality of other child-in-peril scenarios. While their day together certainly has dangerous possibilities, he also shows her a distinct sense of fatherly tenderness, as if she were accessing some hidden reserves of sanity. In a film this uncompromisingly bleak, such silver linings are especially precious.