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A vivid look at an unraveling mind

In Lodge Kerrigan's ''Keane," William Keane (Damian Lewis) haunts the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, asking strangers if they've seen his missing daughter, Sophie. This is where he lost her. She was about 6, and he holds up a news clipping he carries around with him. People look at him in sad bewilderment, because he is bewildering and sad.

Kerrigan's great, incrementally affecting movie, which was co-produced by Steven Soderbergh, presents this man as an unmoored soul, drifting in dampness and cold. In having lost his daughter, he appears to have lost a piece of his mind. He stands in traffic screaming the little girl's name, sleeps in the grass beside the highway, and bathes in a public bathroom. Living is a state of psychological fragility.

This is the existentialist's ''Flightplan." There is no villain to slay. There is no certain outcome. Nothing is stable. And as much as it kills Keane -- a handsome, if weary-looking redhead in his mid-30s -- life must go on. Living in a northern New Jersey roadside hotel (he's on disability), he strikes up an awkward friendship with another tenant, a waitress (Amy Ryan). Desperate, the woman asks this stranger to watch her young daughter (Abigail Breslin) one night.

What ensues is, in its own human way, astonishing and well within the realm of the psychodramatic realism that Kerrigan began with ''Clean, Shaven." The movie has been photographed with a hand-held camera that gives its glamourlessness a disturbing intimacy. Not even William's well-acted trip to a nightclub feels like the electric respite it should. It's grubby and doesn't end well. And, later on, the sound of plastic forks scraping paper plates amid the white noise of a tiny hotel room is heartbreaking music.

If ''Keane" is a downer, it's a stupendously well-conceived one. Eventually, Kerrigan maneuvers his gritty psychological portrait into a work of emotional suspense. He does not flatter people looking for ''action," but his filmmaking rewards your investment. In fact, the last 30 minutes or so are visceral and flooring. The stupefied look Lewis wears for most of the film turns pained and scared, as the air seeps out of the character's irrational resolve.

Lewis is British, and his work here is rigorous and smart, particularly with Breslin, who has an uncommonly natural presence. Lewis's character is probably schizophrenic, but Lewis makes Keane's struggle against the disorder moving.

Kerrigan makes American movies with a European gloom. And in them it's not terribly hard to see his own straits in filmmaking. His previous two movies, ''Clean, Shaven" and ''Claire Dolan," were piercing portraits of unstable obsessives. Kerrigan's life in independent movies is fraught with misery and loss, too.

In 1994, he made a critically lauded debut with ''Clean, Shaven." But ''Claire Dolan" was a 1998 Cannes film festival entry that spent two years with no American distributor. When it was finally released in 2000, it sank without a trace. Two years later, Kerrigan wrapped a picture called ''In God's Hands," with Peter Sarsgaard. But its negative was ruined during processing. So it makes cruel sense that ''Keane" is focused on the maddening disappearance of someone beloved. The movie isn't a crowd-pleaser, but it moves the soul, and that's enough.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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