Ten years before 'Keane', Lodge Kerrigan made his debut with the low-budget 'Clean, Shaven'. I described 'Keane' here before as "an intense and often agonizing glimpse into the life of a mentally ill father", a summary which fits 'Clean, Shaven' as well, except that the word 'intense' should be underlined and in capitals. Be warned: this film is not for the squeamish, it contains some truly horrific moments and will leave you clutching at your own sanity.
Kerrigan's production company at the time of 'Clean, Shaven' was called DSM III, after the manual of mental disorders, revealing his intentions in attempting an accurate portrayal of mental illness, and specifically schizophrenia. The result is a radically subjective film that immerses viewers in the terrifying world of its protagonist to a degree seldom seen in film. (Only a few other examples of such subjective madness come to mind: David Cronenberg's 'Spider' and Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion'.)
The main character, Peter Winter (Peter Greene), suffers from almost constant auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions and compulsive behavior. After being released from a mental hospital, he travels in his car looking for his young daughter, who has been put up for adoption during his absence. A subplot - somewhat superfluous - has a police detective follow Winter, suspecting him of murdering another young girl.
Apart from Greene's astonishing performance, much of the film's power lies in its sound design, by Hahn Rowe. From the start we are made to experience Winter's hallucinations with him, through a soundtrack filled with radio static, random voices, children laughing and menacingly buzzing power lines. Contrary to cinema's conventions, much of the sound has no clear connection with what we see, forcing us to accept it as pieces of a puzzle that will never really fit. It even leads us to distrust the narrative itself, and makes us realize that closure is a luxury of the sane. As one voice on the radio (or in Winter's head?) exclaims: "For you it's paranoia, for me it's reality."
Reality is always a subjective experience, but what if our normal filters of non-relevant input malfunction, and everything we perceive attains the status of 'meaningful'? How could we ever - quite literally - make sense of the world around us? As critic Michael Atkinson points out in his video essay 'A Subjective Assault' (available on the Criterion DVD), "it's the lack of context that is terrifying, and it's the absence of focus of context that seems to make mental illness in general so painful, and life for the schizophrenic a litany of unreadable codes."
The same fragmentary and chaotic perception is carried through in the film's visual style, again making us experience reality through Winter's eyes. Early on we see him covering the rearview mirrors and side windows of his car, in an attempt to shut out his own reflection - but also to reduce his world to manageable proportions. While he finds relative moments of peace in small rituals, putting sugar in his coffee or spreading mustard on a sandwich, the world to him is mostly a scary, incomprehensible place filled with ominous meaning just beyond his grasp. Thus the imagery is dominated by disjointed close-ups of wall, skin and food textures, weird newspapers headlines and other compulsive details - crosscut with Winter's terrified, piercing eyes. (See for example this series of stills.)
Like 'Keane', 'Clean, Shaven' deals with fatherhood as a redemptive ideal, restoring some degree of stability to a mentally diseased mind. Though Winter's intentions towards his daughter are long left in suspense, when he finally meets her we recognize it as the only genuine communication he's had throughout the film. It makes the scene where Winter explains to his daughter that he has a radio receiver in his head and a transmitter in his finger - both of which we have seen him try to remove - truly heartbreaking. Only a child would accept at face value such psychotic ideas, but it is precisely what Winter was looking for all along: someone to listen to his version of reality without judgment.
'Clean, Shaven' has often been called "uncompromising", and it definitely makes for some very uncomfortable viewing. But Kerrigan's "subjective assault" is effective enough to make one interpret the film's tragic ending, not as Greene who doesn't comprehend the outside world, but the outside world (personified by the pursuing detective) who doesn't comprehend him. By that time we have learned to see through his eyes and acquired psychological insight in his tragically troubled mind.
Most of all, though, we have gained empathy for those who are engaged in a continuous, desperate struggle with what most of us take for granted: reality itself.