William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) stands straight, moves slowly, and seldom smiles. He’s been in prison for the last eighteen years for killing a deputy, but good behavior has bought him a parole — a chance he seems earnest about not wasting. Very quickly, William settles into his new life; he finds a job, he finds a girlfriend, he moves in with her. If you’re thinking there are elements from his past violent life willing to drag him down, though, congratulations on having seen more than a few movies. Fortunately, Two Men in Town, a remake of a 1973 French film, doesn’t rest much of its weight on its plot. It’s a mood piece, an actors’ showcase, set out in the desert of New Mexico where sun and dust and sky are the whole world.
William is haunted by two men from the bad old days: Sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), whose deputy William killed, and Terrence (Luis Guzman), an old associate who wants to pull him back into crime. Men lead to damnation, but women point to salvation: William’s parole officer, Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), is tough-minded but wants him to do well, and his bank-clerk girlfriend Teresa (Dolores Heredia) shares William’s yearning for a simple, honest life. There are very few twists in store, which is good but can make the movie seem a bit lightweight. William has anger issues, and he converted to Islam in prison, and he enjoys tooling around on the cheap motorcycle that was one of his first post-jail purchases, and that’s about all there is to him. Simplicity.
Director/cowriter Rachid Bouchareb seems interested in William’s conflicts as iconic, metaphoric. He is a Free Man who will never truly be free. William is black and his nemesis the sheriff is white, but nothing much comes of that. The sheriff has a couple of scenes, in fact, that underline his compassion in certain contexts; he works border patrol (just as Keitel did in the sorely overlooked The Border) and feels badly about the suffering of illegal immigrants, and he throws a party for a returning soldier from Afghanistan. I imagine these details are here (if they aren’t imported from the 1973 film) to show the sheriff as a multifaceted man whose life doesn’t entirely revolve around hovering over William and waiting for him to fuck up.
The scenes between Whitaker, who underplays and simmers, and Keitel, whose rage at the death of the deputy feels genuine, are powerful enough to raise the question of why their conflict is never resolved. Not much else is, either. Two Men in Town, like a lot of desert-set cop dramas (The Pledge, Electra Glide in Blue, El Patrullero), sort of lets its story drift upward and away, like a shimmering highway mirage. Waiting for a climactic scene between William and Teresa? Sorry. How about between William and Emily? Nope. So you have to get your enjoyment in bits and pieces, from the mood and the landscape and the performances. Blethyn is just about the hero of the piece, and deserves better than to have her character all but forgotten about. Ellen Burstyn turns up for a few minutes as William’s adoptive mother, and though it’s fine to see her, all she did was make me reflect that the only other movie featuring her and Harvey Keitel was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, forty years ago now, and that they don’t have much more time to reunite properly (they don’t share any scenes here). And I’m reasonably sure that wasn’t what I was supposed to be thinking about during her scene.