French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb has lately alternated between sweeping historical dramas (the WWII drama "Days of Glory," the Algerian War portrait "Outside the Law") and sentimental two-handers with quieter approaches ("London River," "Just Like a Woman"). In all cases, however, Bouchareb tends to deal in similar themes of contrasting political and personal relationships. "Two Men In Town," a loose remake of José Giovanni's 1973 tale of a paroled murderer trying to get his life back together, applies this tendency to the least-ideological of Bouchareb's movies, resulting in a thinly executed tale littered with uneven performances. Nevertheless, a committed turn by Forest Whitaker in the lead role, paired with "Holy Motors" and "My Life in Pink" cinematographer Yves Cape's evocative images of the spare western landscape, lead to an intriguing contrast between the half-baked material and a handful of stronger ingredients. It's a movie at war with its deficiencies.
"Two Men In Town" is bookended by beautiful, haunting images of a murder committed in the middle of the desert, set against the glaring sun and a gold-encrusted horizon. The horror of the event is at odds with a wordless sense of wonder, and that disconnect percolates throughout the plot, which maintains a grimly effective atmosphere but loses most of its impact whenever any of the characters speak.
Whitaker plays William Garnett, a former drug dealer released from prison 18 years after murdering a local police officer. Assigned to a committed parole officer (Brenda Blythe) new to the community, William initially has the aura of a reformed man, having converted to Islam and committed to landing a stable job. But a gruff local sheriff (Harvey Keitel) doesn't buy it, and enacts a series of attempts to break William's newfound confidence and throw him back in jail. Meanwhile, William faces additional pressure from an old criminal cohort (Luis Guzman) who tries to persuade his former pal back to move south of the border and return to his illegal dealings.
This formula is about as simple as they come — man fights to overcome his evil ways and faces several trials that test his resolve — and the screenplay, co-written by Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle, routinely struggles to translate its starkly philosophical mood into an interesting dilemma. Blythe is shouldered with the unfortunate task of delivering several of the movie's clunkers as she attempts to persuade the sheriff to give William a chance at discovering a better life, and she rarely speaks them with much luster. "You can't break the law to enforce the law," she asserts, later proclaiming that "without trust, there would be no chance of reform." The result is a disconcertingly transparent reminder of the movie's thematic concerns that's otherwise well-explored when left unsaid.
Even as it flounders to put the ideas of the plot into language, "Two Men In Town" maintains a profound despair, mainly due to Whitaker's evident investment in the material. The actor frequently shows a penchant for combating overstated storytelling tropes with subdued delivery, and doesn't disappoint here: Two scenes in which the character rides his motorcycle down an empty road, first grinning over the prospects of his freedom and later howling to the wind in frustration, bring an immediate clarity to William's ongoing conundrum. Bouchareb compliments Whitaker's investment in the role with dusty images of the man working the field in his newfound minimum wage gig, cogently exploring the American dream through the visuals of its mythology.
But other scenes can't keep pace: Keitel portrays his mean-spirited officer like a half-hearted cartoon version of his "Bad Lieutenant," with not even enough investment in the role to give a campy appeal; Guzman similarly comes across as a broad villainous caricature. The only other actor able to develop substance out of the material is Ellen Burstyn, in a fleeting role with Whitaker near the end of the film, but her appearance adds little depth to the story so late in the game.
William's plight raises the same provocative issues as its source material, which Giovanni clearly developed in part from his own experience as a one-time prisoner on death row (he was eventually acquitted). Namely, "Two Men In Town" explores the definition of criminality and questions whether the justice system encourages it in favor of redemptive possibilities. Yet that particular focus is hardly complicated by the new movie's series of developments, which find William wandering through his odd jobs and tentatively eking out a fresh existence with his supportive new girlfriend. You feel for the guy more than the plot surrounding him. While the ending cuts deep, it arrives with a thud of inevitability. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy from the first frame: The tragedy of William's situation is matched by the movie's incapacity to realize its significant ideas.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The dark, low key story and mixed word of mouth limit its commercial potential, though a VOD release is all but guaranteed.