Broken Bad, by David Bax
Rachid Bouchareb’s Two Men in Town starts by showing us how it will end and then flashing back to the story’s actual beginning. It’s an overused trope in the first place but Bouchareb’s employment of it feels particularly pointless. The film’s source of tension is whether the protagonist will choose a new path of peace or return to his violent ways. When we know the answer from the jump, the whole affair just feels like marking time.
William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) has just been released from prison, where he served eighteen years of his 21-year sentence after killing a sheriff’s deputy in a New Mexico county near the border. The terms of his parole stipulate that he must remain in that same county for the three remaining years of his sentence. His parole officer, Emily (Brenda Blethyn), the very definition of “tough but fair,” truly wants Garnett to be reformed but she’s not one to show him an ounce of trust until he earns it. The county’s sheriff, Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), on the other hand, is far less optimistic about Garnett’s rehabilitation. The memory of his murdered deputy hasn’t faded. For that matter, neither has Terence (Luis Guzman), Garnett’s old partner in crime, now doing well for himself and eager to welcome Garnett back into the fold.
Bouchareb’s tapestry of everyday life in this Southwest community is egalitarian and liberal in the manner of John Sayles. Both filmmakers are interested in the under-explored lives of those on the common fringe. Bouchareb’s visual approach enhances this way of seeing things. Cinematographer Yves Cape gives us twilight vistas that are stunning but have dirt and warmth in them. The imagery is beautiful but never otherworldly.
Bouchareb’s sensitive eye extends to his characters. Whitaker is the lead and is solid as ever but he’s not one of those two men of the title. They would be Agati and Terence, opposing forces who are nonetheless equally antagonistic toward Garnett. Two Men in Town is clear about where it stands on the issue of rehabilitation. The film believes Garnett can change but it refuses to set up strawmen to rebut that view. The men pushing or pulling Garnett back to his old ways have their reasons. Guzman never experienced the trauma of imprisonment. Keitel still mourns his friend. Both are villains, to be sure, but they are sympathetic ones.
Still, it’s deeply disheartening just how much of Bouchareb’s good work is undone by the choice to show the film’s climax at the beginning. Two Men in Town is a captivating piece of social and political examination but ruining the suspense robs it of the emotional impact that could have made it all stick.