Lodge Kerrigan's movies are so often termed "uncompromising" and "unrelenting" that it's worth pondering what exactly lies behind their steadfast refusal to let up. The salient quality of these spare, intense films is that they deny the viewer the comfort of distance. Kerrigan demolishes the notion that movies are not suited to expressing inner life. He forces you to share skull space with characters most films would never think to look at, let alone so intimately. Getting close, often upsettingly so, to his lost souls and margin dwellers, he is undaunted by their opacity and failing grip on sanity, not to mention unencumbered by social judgments of any sort. In the course of three features, all as steel nerved in execution as they are rigorous in conception, this singular American independent has developed what might be the most literal and harrowing form of empathy in modern movies. At the center of each of Kerrigan's films—two of which are titled after their protagonists—is a lone, severely troubled person. More than focused, these portraits are defined foremost by the director's relationship with his subject—a moral and aesthetic stance that informs everything from camera placement to character psychology and dictates the terms of engagement for the spectator.
Keane (2004), Kerrigan's most recent feature, maintains a suffocating, obsessive proximity, via handheld stalker-cam, with a desperate young father, sick with grief over the recent disappearance of his little girl and helplessly drawn to the site of his unthinkable loss, replaying the traumatic event as if hoping to alter its outcome. Claire Dolan (1998), about a New York City prostitute's stoic struggle for financial and spiritual independence, holds its benumbed protagonist in the steadiest and most implacable of gaze—one under which all preconceptions can only wither.
In many ways, Kerrigan's first feature, Clean, Shaven (1993)—shot piecemeal, on a tiny budget, over two years—remains his most radical case study. This grim, lucid dispatch from the murky depths of madness situates itself not simply close to but more or less inside the tormented consciousness of a transient schizophrenic. Peter Winter (an astonishing, pre–Pulp Fiction Peter Greene), whose stunned, piercing eyes bespeak entire lifetimes of pain, suffers from a battery of visibly incapacitating hallucinations and delusions. He's possibly dangerous and is certainly regarded as such by those who encounter him. Returning to his hometown, he drops in on his stern, weary mother and, shadowed by a detective who believes he's a child killer, goes looking for the daughter taken away from him years ago. (Parental anxiety courses through all of Kerrigan's films: a child represents equally the possibility of loss and of redemption, and Peter is forerunner to both the bereft Keane and Claire Dolan, who wants more than anything to be a mother.)
Kerrigan's approach to his subject might be termed phenomenological—a film of minimal dialogue and fastidious textures, Clean, Shaven mostly resists explanations and backstory, restricting itself instead to transcribing and replicating the manifestations of schizophrenia. (Kerrigan named his production company at the time DSM III Films, as in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) We experience this film as Peter experiences his life, painfully alert to stimuli. Auditory hallucinations, a primary symptom of schizophrenia, are brilliantly conveyed. The first thing you notice about the sound design is its exaggerated, alarming closeness—everything seems to be crowding in on your brain. Hahn Rowe's soundtrack, a blanket of electronic pulses and staticky white noise, is mixed in with a chorus of muffled voices (one poignant snatch: "For you it's paranoia. For me it's a reality"). Even when the volume is turned down, the abrupt silences are fraught and agonizing.
The overall audio effect, of radio frequencies tuned in and out, derives from Peter's interpretation—a technological rather than a religious or supernatural one—of the voices in his head. Sometimes seen twiddling the dial on his car radio, he's convinced that receivers and transmitters have been embedded beneath his scalp and fingernails. This delusion, not an uncommon one among schizophrenics, sets up the haunting final image and also accounts for the two most visceral moments, which see Peter taking a pair of scissors to his head and, in a scene that has understandably gained a certain notoriety, successfully prying loose a fingernail (this unforgettable cinematic endurance test makes a queasy manicure in Claire Dolan that much more disconcerting).
But it's not all shock and gore. There's a haunting, elegant economy to many of Kerrigan's visual ideas: Peter drives around in a battered car whose windows and mirrors have been plastered with old newspapers (his inability to tolerate his own reflection also causes him to smash in one of the windows). We see the run-down rural landscape through the filter of Peter's distress. Power lines repeatedly bisect the screen—flickering black bands racing by against an endless blue sky—and they seem, from our now paranoid viewpoint, to be strangling the world.
Of the films that have tried to evoke or arrive at an understanding of insanity, from the inside or outside, using the first or third person, none have done so with Clean, Shaven's remarkable alchemy of clinical detail and raw poetry. The abrasive, subjective sound design, the visual abstractions, and the nerve-jangling ellipses all inch the movie toward the realm of experimental film—which is only fitting, given that the condition in question is characterized by discontinuity, the erosion of boundaries, and the failure of narrative. Kerrigan does not in any way venture that his protagonist has a beautiful mind—this is as unsentimental a depiction of mental illness as you'll find in movies—but the film has a frayed, terse lyricism all the same.
Even if he does not intend to romanticize, the artist who seeks to inhabit the mind of a madman runs the risk of seeming presumptuous. But Kerrigan avoids pitfalls largely through a flatness of affect, a way of seeing that combines a ferocity of focus with a lack of judgment. It's a testament to the filmmaker's instinctive poise and restraint that Clean, Shaven is unblinking but not voyeurÂistic, poetic but not sentimental, suspenseful but not exploitative, extreme but not sensational. Kerrigan abstains from overt psychologizing, and Clean, Shaven, although perhaps the most thoroughgoing filmic exploration of schizophrenia ever made, sidesteps the debates and competing theories that have sprung up over the yearsâ€”whether it is one disease or many, whether or not it even constitutes an illness, how it is best diagnosed and treated.
Which is not to say that the film lacks a point of view. If anything, the political dimension of Kerrigan's movies is unmissable. He insists on showing people we'd rather not think about, in places we'd rather not see, the forgotten backwaters and industrialized gray zones of present-day, minimum-wage America. His films withhold information about their characters only to draw us closer to themâ€”what we're not told is a cue to fill in what we think we know, which, as often as not, exists to be overturned. The upshot is that there's less distance between us and these life-bruised individuals than we'd first assumed. Kerrigan is above all a humanist, and if his films are about any one thing, it's not so much mental instability as the precariousness of sanity in the pitiless, brutalizing modern world.
In The Politics of Experience, the Scottish writer and psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who advocated therapeutic communities instead of conventional treatment and hospitalization for so-called schizophrenics, reconsiders the etymology of the term, coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1908, from the Greek roots schizo and phrenos, and generally translated as "shattered mind." But Laing offers an alternate definition of phrenos: "soul" or "heart." "The schizophrenic in this sense is one who is brokenhearted," he writes, "and even broken hearts have been known to mend, if we have the heart to let them." To Lodge Kerrigan's great credit, Clean, Shaven is a film that shares this philosophy.
Dennis Lim is film editor at the Village Voice and the editor of The Village Voice Film Guide: 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits (Wiley, 2006).