Joe Brewster’s feature debut, “The Keeper,” is a sharply observed, often disturbing psychological drama of the moral transformation and eventual decline of a black corrections officer committed to fairness and justice.
Prospects for theatrical release are middling for an intriguing film that is full of fascinating details about urban life and work but is ultimately more ambitious than effective.
Set at Brooklyn’s Kings County House of Detention, tale revolves around Paul Lamont (Giancarlo Esposito), a 36-year-old correctional officer who aspires to be a lawyer. Liberal and highly conscientious, he’s appalled by the never-ending parade of crooks and scoundrels in a criminal justice system that doesn’t promote any meaningful change.
First scene establishes right away the contrast between Paul and his colleagues, particularly the cynical Ross (Ron Brice), who after 10 years on the job has developed a sarcastic edge and his own “unique” approach to handling his job.
Paul still believes in the possibility of reform. Opportunity presents itself when he meets Jean Baptiste (Isaach de Bankole), a brutally treated Haitian who’s charged with rape but insists he’s innocent. Defying the advice of his wife, Angela (Regina Taylor), Paul bails him out and later takes him in.
In alternating scenes of domestic life and prison, pic documents the daily stress involved in attempting to be a dedicated correctional officer and a loving husband. Indeed, the burdens of Paul’s exacting work — constant danger of violence, unwanted overtime, peer pressure to be tougher with inmates — adversely affect his marital bliss.
Marital tensions increase as the initially suspicious Angela begins to warm up to Jean. The illegal immigrant turns out to be a sensitive man, a baker who has come to the U.S. to support his two children in Haiti. Paul’s jealousy and insecurity build up, leading to some fatefully violent confrontations.
Writer-director Brewster has fashioned an original, multilayered narrative. With all of the characters black, it’s refreshing to observe that none conforms to a stereotype, and all are complex in their motivation and behavior.
Brewster astutely shows the crashing of the moral universe of a man who believes in changing the system but finally succumbs to career pressures. Still, there’s one important scene, in which Paul joins his colleagues in executing personal justice, that is not entirely credible.
An accomplished actor who contributed to many Spike Lee movies, Esposito is strong in pic’s first part, but his performance gets weaker and duller in the last reel, possibly a result of the schematic writing.
De Bankole, who appeared in Claire Denis'”Chocolat,” and Taylor each have excellent moments, though their turns also suffer from the way their big scenes are shot and directed.
Brewster is obviously an intelligent director who is devoted to this complex morality tale, but at this point in his career he needs to acquire more polished technical skills. Notwithstanding John Petersen’s original music, production values are for the most part mediocre, particularly Tom McArdle’s editing, which is often too abrupt.