A title as naive as “The Good Man” is a virtual neon sign flashing “Moral Ambiguities to Follow,” but it still won’t prepare auds for the haunting upshot of Phil Harrison’s low-budget, highly idealistic urban parable. Daring in its structure and disquieting in its message, the pic unfolds parallel stories in Belfast and South Africa, posing a multitude of moral questions that lead viewers to a collision with their own conscience. Word of mouth and a central performance by the increasingly ubiquitous Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) could help “Man” find a modest arthouse niche.
In his feature debut, writer-director Harrison is up to a kind of sobering mischief. Who — and what — is a good man? The ostensible title character, Michael (Gillen), is an upwardly mobile Belfast banker with a beautiful young wife (Kelly Campbell), a child and, suddenly, a moral disaster on his hands. Leaving a pub one night, he steals another man’s cab, and when the offended party gives chase, he’s struck and killed by an oncoming car. Michael, watching from the receding vantage point of the purloined cab, is completely unnerved, wracked with guilt and uncertain what to do. He confides in no one, his work suffers and his wife is at her wits’ end.
Meanwhile, in a South African township, Sifiso (Thabang Sidloyi), a lanky student with a budding political conscience, grapples with the question of why his country, decades into its independence, is a corrupt hellhole, and what exactly constitutes righteous behavior. He joins activists in his impoverished Cape Town settlement in “diverting” electricity to homes in need, which the government sees as stealing; he fights schoolyard bullies in defense of the lovely Katelho (Lunathi Mampofu) and suffers for it.
Harrison sets everything up in such a fashion that one expects the two stories will intersect in cliched fashion, with Michael perhaps atoning for his sins in a manner that benefits young Sifiso. But that’s only partly true, as the scope of Harrison’s story reaches far beyond the relatively banal tale of a stolen cab and a hit-and-run. Without giving too much away, “The Good Man” turns out to be about post-colonialism, liberal cluelessness, cloistered worldviews, First World patriarchy, Third World development and the complexities of a global economy in which good and bad become subjective matters. Michael may indeed be a good man, simply because he wants to be, but nothing here is simple, and the film drives that home in a way that leaves the viewer with a distinct sense of foreboding.
Production values are tops, notably the shooting in Africa (by co-lenser Roy Zetisky), which is both intimate and fluid in capturing the tensions of a township and its people, and the editing of Paul Speirs and Helen Sheridan, melding two dissimilar stories into a very coherent whole.