Keeper, The(1996): Joe Brewster’s Feature Debut, Starring Giancarlo Esposito

Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 19, 1996–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 correctional 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 in intent and design than in execution.

Set at Brooklyn’s Kings County House of Detention, the tale revolves around Paul Lamont (Giancarlo Esposito), a 36-year-old correctional officer who aspires to be a law student. 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 sarcasm and his own “unique” approach in handling his job.

Relatively a greener, Paul still believes in the possibility of reform and change. Opportunity presents itself when he meets Jean Baptiste (Isaac 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 bals him out and, later, when Jean appears at his doorstep with no place to stay, takes him in, again ignoring his wife’s protests. Alternating scenes of domestic life at home and demanding job at prison document the daily anxiety and stress involved in attempting to be a dedicated correctional officer and a loving husband. Indeed, the burdens on Paul’s exacting work–constant danger of violence, unwanted overtime, peer-pressure to be tougher with inmates–adversely affect his marital bliss. Spending less and less time together, the couple drifts farther apart.

Marital tensions increase as the initially suspicious Angela begins to warm up to Jean. The illegal alien turns out to be a sensitive man, a baker by trade who has come to the U.S. to support his two children in Haiti. The two go shopping together and begin to enjoy each other’s company, until one night Paul returns home and finds them in the kitchen cooking and singing in French. Paul’s jealousy and insecurity build up, leading to some fatefully violent confrontations with both Angela and Jean.

Writer-director Brewster has fashioned an original, multi-layered narrative that differs from most black-themed movies now a days, as it’s not about boys in the hood or life in the inner-city ghetto. With all of the characters black, it’s refreshing to observe that none conforms to an established stereotype and all exhibit shades of gray in motivation and demeanor. Brewster astutely shows, almost step-by-step, the crashing of the moral universe of a man who believes in changing the system, but finally succumbs to career-pressures and expected allegiance to co-workers. Still, there’s one important scene, in which Paul joins his colleagues in executing personal justice against a corrupt inmate, who is not entirely credible; a female officer goes to the extreme of suggesting that they kill the scoundrel.

Helmer reveals his psychiatrist training in an ultra-Freudian plot that involves Paul’s ethnicity. Paul’s initial attraction to Jean is partly based on the fact that he himself is half-Haitian and as a child was ashamed of his dad. Meeting Jean precipitates an identity crisis that forces Paul to acknowledge and eventually accept his racial origin. While this cross-cultural element is an intriguing idea, insertion of flashbacks from Paul’s childhood and crosscutting between him and Jean are too blunt and overly simplistic.

Unfortunately, the film’s worst sequences are its climaxes, in which the writing is pedestrian and the acting hysterical. An accomplished actor who contributed to many Spike Lee movies, Esposito is strong in the 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 have each excellent moments, though their turns also suffer from the manner in which their ‘big’ scenes are shot and directed.

Brewster is obviously an intelligent director committed to complex morality tale, but at this point in his career needs to acquire more polished technical skills. Lacking subtlety in tone or interesting visual style, “The Keeper” feels like a first film. Notwithstanding John Petersen’s original music, production values are for the part mediocre, particularly Tom McArdle’s editing which is often too abrupt.