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Although both are family parables of a sort, Keane and Thumbsucker share neither theme nor tone. The first is the tale of a largely solitary man haunted by a vision of personal loss that may be pure fantasy; the second observes an almost-ordinary suburban nuclear unit, odd but basically intact. Yet the most significant difference between the two movies is not story but style: Whereas the elegantly uneasy Keane approaches pure cinema, Thumbsucker hobbles from chapter to chapter as if the novel that’s its source were an iron ball chained to its ankle.
Because Keane is such an unsettling experience, it might be reassuring to be told upfront that the worst doesn’t happen. But then again, that depends on what you think the worst could be. Writer-director Lodge Kerrigan’s third feature—after the little-seen Clean, Shaven and Claire Dolan—is an intensely intimate dance with a single character, William Keane (Damian Lewis), whose plight remains open to interpretation right up to the final shot. The film puts a child at risk—but at risk of what? That’s one of the many questions the director will never directly answer.
Keane opens in its defining location, Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. A frantic man, who later introduces himself as the title character, is searching for his young daughter, who has disappeared. It soon becomes clear that Sophie didn’t vanish just then. She’s been missing since September, however long ago that was. While muttering exposition to himself—a necessary but uncharacteristically obtrusive ploy—Keane retraces his daughter’s supposed steps, has a revelation about what bus her abductor must have taken, and then changes his mind. Throughout this fevered introduction, cinematographer John Foster follows Keane as tightly as possible. He’s the most closely pursued film protagonist since the equally distraught father at the center of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son.
Keane returns to his room at a flophouse hotel, drinks beer, goes shopping for clothing for Sophie, and phones his ex-wife, who won’t take his call. If doubts about his reliability haven’t occurred already, these short scenes emphasize how little we know about him and his situation. Was there ever a Sophie? Does his ex-wife avoid him because their daughter disappeared on his watch, or is Sophie merely a figment of Keane’s broken marriage? Things don’t become any clearer when Keane meets a fellow hotel resident, hard-luck waitress Lynn (Amy Ryan), who’s separated from her husband and has a 7-year-old daughter, Kira (Abigail Breslin), whose detached consideration of the world highlights Keane’s frenzy.
When Keane helps an initially mistrustful Lynn pay her rent, she seems not to know who he is. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been observing her and her daughter for a while. Could Kira be the inspiration for Keane’s fantasies—if they are fantasies—of Sophie? And when a desperate Lynn asks her new acquaintance to look after her daughter, how exactly will Keane use Kira as a surrogate for Sophie, and what will this reveal?
Shot in grubbily genuine New York and New Jersey locations and with individual scenes (however short) in real time, Keane is intensely cinematic. The camera’s proximity to its subject makes its presence impossible to ignore, and as Keane’s behavior becomes increasingly drastic—watch him turn a singalong to the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” into a ticking time bomb—the only hope of escape is the edit that ends a scene. Yet the film is also powerfully theatrical. It’s a one-man show, after all, in which Keane is the only character with an internal life, however mysterious. In the title role, Lewis paces himself as if he can’t pace himself at all. He breathes the role into himself, his utter commitment mirroring the vehemence of Keane’s mania.
Clean, Shaven was, believe it or not, an even edgier experience than Keane. But it was about a schizophrenic, whereas this film’s protagonist may merely be overwhelmed by grief. Kerrigan’s latest is classical in structure, traveling full circle in location and character, as Keane finally becomes the man (illusory or not) we thought he was in the opening scene. This isn’t literary filmmaking, though. Keane’s style of storytelling is primarily visual, utterly aware of the camera’s power and limitations. It moves as close to Keane as is bearable, but it never pretends it can go all the way.
A lot more happens in Thumbsucker than in Keane—and that’s not such a good thing. The title character, scrawny and slack-haired 17-year-old Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), remains at the center of the story throughout, but the issue of his thumb soon fades as he turns to other comforts, shedding personalities as he goes. And he’s not the only one: Dissatisfied mom Audrey (the striking Tilda Swinton, once again failing to convince as an American) and bitter dad Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) also experience frequent alterations, as do such supporting characters as Justin’s New Age orthodontist, Perry (Keanu Reeves), and his pretty classmate Rebecca (Kelli Garner), who goes from idealistic and unattainable to stoner ex-friend to lab partner in sexual experimentation. The transitions are enough to fill a book—which is part of writer-director Mike Mills’ dilemma: In adapting his feature debut from Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel, the music-vid veteran didn’t discard enough subplots.
Set in Oregon, Thumbsucker opens with shots of a contemporary insta-suburbia. Thus the film establishes not only that Justin lives in a no-place, but also that it has no new mode for observing this subdivided landscape. (A score by Tim DeLaughter and the Polyphonic Spree just adds to the sense of self-conscious banality.) Justin is not substantially more immature than many high-school kids, but his thumb-sucking has boosted the family’s dental bills and tormented ex-jock Mike, who can’t stand having a babyish son. Dad is closer to younger son Joel (Chase Offerle), a pudgy-faced pre-pube who already has the soul of a high-school bully. Meanwhile, Justin clings to his mother, a nurse whose discontent is being channeled into a crush on TV actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt).
Given that it provides the film’s title, the thumb-sucking desists surprisingly quickly. Asking Justin to focus on his “power animal,” Perry hypnotizes the kid, ending his attraction to his thumb. Then it’s on to Ritalin, which makes Justin a hyper, dislikable star of the debate team (whose coach is played by a refreshingly understated Vince Vaughn). By the time Justin abandons his prescribed meds for a gentler regimen of marijuana, Audrey has taken a job at a rehab clinic where the patients include omnivorous drug fiend Schramm. A shared fear that Audrey is going to leave them for the screwed-up actor finally gives Justin and his father something to bond over. This cavalcade of disruptions ends remarkably neatly, with a secular-humanist benediction from Perry and views of Manhattan streets that are just as trite as the opening vistas of Oregon cul-de-sacs.
An Amerindie quirkathon that concludes as a mainstream-Hollywood hymn to self-actualization, Thumbsucker contains ideas that could have yielded a more challenging tale. With a psychobabbling dentist, pill-pushing high-school counselors, and a mom who’s a nurse, the film hints at a message about the medicalization of American culture. Mills doesn’t have the daring—or perhaps the attention span—to pursue that critique, but that’s not the fundamental problem. What encumbers the film most is the disparity between plotting and pacing: Developments that are meant to be profound pass so quickly that they barely register. Few viewers would want Thumbsucker to be longer, but the principal feeling the movie conjures is a sense of how much better the episodes might work on the page.CP