That actors of color are so infrequently cast as anything but hustlers and wastrels adds an extra dimension of intrigue to "The Keeper," a fable-like character drama that's the first feature by psychiatrist-cum-filmmaker Joe Brewster and that doesn't need any extra dimensions to be taut and intelligent, thanks very much.
Setting his film in and around a jail--the Kings County House of Detention--allows Brewster to thumb his nose at conventional typecasting at the same time it provides the proper cage for his conflicted characters.
Chief among them is Paul Lamont (Giancarlo Esposito), a corrections officer whose place in the gothic universe of the short-term prisoner is as unsettled as his own sense of identity. Half-Haitian--and toting a lot of "issues" about his Caribbean heritage--he is strangely affected by a Haitian inmate, the biblically named Jean Baptiste (Isaach De Bankole of "Night on Earth"), who has been falsely accused of rape.
Paul eventually bails Jean out, and Jean eventually shows up at Paul's home, where his wife, Angela (Regina Taylor of "Fly Away Home"), is at first incensed, and then enchanted, by having Jean in her home.
Brewster doesn't just sidestep stereotypes, he gives us characters with malleable and multifaceted personalities; people are, after all, really different depending on whom they're with.
Angela, for instance, whose daily struggle with her school students and her husband's inner demons has drained her joy, blooms around the spiritually healthy Jean Baptiste. Paul has to work each day beside a reverse racist like Clarence Ross (the all-too-rarely seen Ron Brice) and is not immune to the dehumanizing effects of jailhouse life, despite his intellect. Nor is he immune to jealousy, which erupts when he suspects Jean and Angela of having an affair, evicts Jean and lets those demons overtake him.
Paul is occupied, after all, in the business of pain, some of it personal, some of it institutional. The prison exterminator, Jimmy (Arthur French), explains to Paul that one day he realized how much in his life depended upon the rats and cockroaches he's supposed to kill. So he spares a few; it keeps the population steady, he tells Paul, who sees as we do a metaphor for criminal justice in general.
While there's a visual stiffness to "The Keeper," which hasn't quite lost a certain stagy quality in transition from script to screen, it's an extremely well-acted movie. And its provocative ideas are explored in a way that's both Kafkaesque and therapeutic.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult situations, violence, vulgarity.
Giancarlo Esposito: Paul Lamont
Regina Taylor: Angela Lamont
Isaach De Bankole: Jean Baptiste
Ron Brice: Clarence Ross
A Rada Films production. Producer-writer-director Joe Brewster. Producer Jordi Torrent. Co-producer Giancarlo Esposito. Executive producers Juan Amalbert, Forrest Murray. Co-executive producer Marcia Shulman. Cinematography Igor Sunara. Production design Flavia Galuppo. Art direction Tom Jarmusch. Music John Petersen. Editor Tom McArdle. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* Opens today for one week only at the New Beverly Cinema, 7165 Beverly Blvd., (213) 938-4038. Playing in conjunction with "Daughters of the Dust" today and Saturday; "One False Move," Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; and "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song," Wednesday and Thursday.