The muscle and the molls are in the parlor, hunkered down and waiting for the cops. There are ghosts upstairs, rattling their chains. But “Keyhole” is not really a gangster picture nor a horror movie, though it traffics in some of the visual and verbal conventions of both genres: tough talk, murky shadows, darkened hallways. The simplest way to describe it is as a Guy Maddin film, which is really just a way of gesturing toward its puzzles and complications.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the cinema of nostalgia, inspired by “The Artist” and “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris,” among others. Mr. Maddin’s obsession with the movie past long predates those efforts. His black-and-white, silent films (including the features “Dracula, Pages From a Virgin’s Diary,” “Cowards Bend the Knee” and “Brand Upon the Brain!” and a bouquet of marvelously kinetic shorts) are more radical and more rigorously authentic than “The Artist.” He uses old styles and technologies not as a cute retro gimmick but rather to explore persistent themes of memory and loss.
In “Keyhole” a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric) returns to a home that is haunted by regret and threatened by the prospect of revenge. His minions, bracing for a police raid, pass the time conspiring, complaining, flirting with the boss’s mistress and dabbling in interior decoration. Ulysses arrives carrying a young woman named Denny (Brooke Palsson), whom he has apparently saved from drowning. He is preoccupied with caring for her and also with a young man, gagged and bound with ropes, who turns out to be his son, Manners (David Wontner).
Manners’s mother, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), is somewhere on the upper floors, attended by her lover and the specter of her father. Like his Homeric namesake Ulysses is seeking a way back to his wife, though there is not much evidence of love or loyalty between them. Nor is “Keyhole,” narratively speaking, a reimagined “Odyssey” any more than it is a ’30s crime drama. It’s more like a dusty attic full of battered, evocative cultural references. You might detect the shades of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” and Henry James’s spooky Victorian tales or find other echoes and glimmerings to parse with your friends after the movie.
You will also find, amid the mannered performances, the comically overwrought voice-over (“Remember, Ulysses!”) and the smoky, silvery cinematography (by Benjamin Kasulke), a kernel of surprising and scary emotion. In some of Mr. Maddin’s other work there is more than just a kernel. Beyond their formal brilliance it is the psychological anguish of “Brand Upon the Brain!” and the layered melancholy of “My Winnipeg,” Mr. Maddin’s 2008 ode to his hometown, that make those films so lastingly powerful and strange.
“Keyhole,” which was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, represents something of a departure, even as its weird, almost-familiar, monochromatic images are stamped with Mr. Maddin’s unmistakable sensibility. It is his first digitally shot feature, and it is also less personal and more accessible than some of his other work. To a die-hard Maddinite this may be a little disappointing, but for that reason “Keyhole” may also be a perfect gateway into the bizarre and fertile world of a unique film artist.
“Keyhole” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). More nudity than you usually see in black-and-white movies.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Guy Maddin; written by Mr. Maddin and George Toles; director of photography, Benjamin Kasulke; edited by John Gurdebeke; production design by Richardo Alms; costumes by Heather Neale; produced by Jody Shapiro and Jean du Toit; released by Monterey Media. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.
WITH: Jason Patric (Ulysses Pick), Isabella Rossellini (Hyacinth), Udo Kier (Dr. Lemke), Brooke Palsson (Denny), David W