An ex-con trying to go straight is hounded by both sides of the law in Rachid Bouchareb’s “Two Men in Town,” a standard-issue drama set in New Mexico, where grand open spaces highlight the big open gaps in logic. Loosely based on Jose Giovanni’s 1973 pic of the same name (minus the court scenes and speechifying), with an added classic Western overlay, Bouchareb’s free adaptation benefits from Brenda Blethyn’s well-modulated performance, yet the over-signaled narrative feels like a rehash, and the leaps of faith required are wider than Dead Man’s Gulch. Stateside biz is unlikely to deliver solid returns.
Possibly intended as the second installment of a stated trilogy touching on American-Muslim relations, “Two Men in Town” is slightly more successful than Bouchareb’s misfire “Just Like a Woman,” though it has more in common with “London River,” also starring Blethyn. Here she plays parole officer Emily Smith, just moved to an isolated ranch house that looks like the kind of prairie home always besieged by Indians in classic oaters. With her no-nonsense hair, mom jeans and laconic yet spirited delivery, she’s just right for this part of the world, though few would suspect she’s a fan of French chantoosie Barbara.
The pic opens with a timeless Western vista and William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) dragging a man across the desert floor before smashing his skull in with a rock. When seen next, Garnett is in prison performing the ritual ablutions of a practicing Muslim (the book “On Being a Muslim” is on his desk, in case anyone wasn’t sure). After 18 years in the slammer, he’s about to be paroled, advised by the imam who converted him: “Redemption is always possible for those who desire it.” He’s also warned to control his anger, so after those clues, audiences can pretty much figure out where this is heading.
Garnett’s got a long rap sheet dating back to when he was 11, topped off by the murder of a sheriff’s deputy; unfortunately for him, the sheriff, Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), is still in power and not at all the forgiving type. However, lest anyone think he’s cast in the heartless Joe Arpaio mold, a scene of him scolding self-appointed border “protectors” and speaking Spanish to the captured illegal immigrants attempts to prove he’s a more complex guy than meets the eye. (A later scene of Agati crying over dead migrants, meant to show his softer side, feels particularly false.)
Smith is Garnett’s parole officer, firm yet just: “Without trust there can be no chance of reform,” she tells a skeptical Agati, though the line is really directed at audiences, just in case her position wasn’t clear. Garnett tries hard to stay straight, getting a job as a cowhand, taking up with honest bank teller Teresa (Dolores Heredia, “Days of Grace”), and never missing prayer time — there’s a lot of praying. But Agati won’t give the guy a break, and neither will former underworld associate Terence (Luis Guzman), both on his back and wearing down his resolve to control his anger.
Giovanni’s film was designed to highlight flaws in the justice system, a thrust that is largely absent here, except for a critique of parole programs that force perps to serve in the county where the crime was committed. Instead, Bouchareb shifts the story into horse-opera territory — a rich, and richly mined, genre stocked with familiar elements of revenge, temptation and the love of a good woman. Unfortunately, the latter is poorly thought out: Why would Teresa accept Garnett’s declaration of love after one date, and why let him move in after two weeks?
The revenge angle is the most successful element, though Keitel’s oddly detached delivery traps him in two-dimensionality, the misguided stabs at character complexity notwithstanding. Far worse are scenes with Terence, a bad guy straight out of central casting. Eighteen years after Garnett acted as his henchman, why would the parolee be so vital to Terence’s operations now? Is there no trusty criminal left in all of New Mexico?
Whitaker’s physicality works well here, and he long ago mastered the inner conflict of a man prone to violence yet struggling to keep it in check; when it does come out, his body moves in short, tense spasms of energy. Ellen Burstyn makes an odd appearance as Garnett’s estranged adopted mother — odd not because Burstyn isn’t right (she’s always right), but because the character is sprung as a surprise too late in the game, designed merely to milk emotions from an increasingly desperate Garnett.
Vet d.p. Yves Cape (“Holy Motors,” “White Material”) compensates for the plodding narrative with starkly beautiful images of broad desert plains and distant mountain ranges bearing silent witness to human cruelty. Bouchareb is especially keen to show Islam in a good light, emphasizing the calming influences of the religion, yet the too-frequent pauses featuring Garnett at prayer, accompanied by music designed to convey positive thoughts, are over-calculated and painfully obvious.