The film opens with William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) being released from prison after 18 years inside for murder. In that time he has found Allah and converted to Islam. With the help of his saintly and sage like parole officer Emily Smith (played by Brit Brenda Blethyn) Garnett deals with his demons and begins to forge himself a life. It is Blethyn who is the most believable, resilient and interesting character in the film, a realist but a true believer in people and their capacity to change; she anchors the film. Her casting was a masterstroke by Bouchareb who had worked with her on London River, for all the male characters shouting and blustering Smith is the strongest character of the film, a testament to Blethyn’s acting.
The film’s villain is Sheriff Agati (played by Harvey Keitel); snarling and vengeful his resentment of Garnett seems over-amplified and irrational. He fears and expects that Garnett will relent and go back into his criminal ways, therefore his release into his town signals bad news. At every opportunity Agati makes life difficult for Garnett and harasses him, hoping to both imprison Garnett again and prove his point about the innate criminal instinct in some men. Keitel pours everything and more into his role but the attempts to show his more humane side seem ham-fisted. The film’s central and most intriguing conflict should be between Garnett and Agati but it is Agati’s bouts with Smith that form the heart of the films themes, can a man find redemption and truly change? Although at certain parts during the film Whitaker’s talents seem unutilised for an actor of such depth. The script (the greatest weakness of the film) rarely gives him a chance to shine.
The scarce landscape that surrounds the border town is captured beautifully and give a sense of isolation for Garnett’s character. Within this microcosm both men become magnetised to each other, unable to relinquish their resentment. Garnett is very much the wounded animal who knows the vultures circling above him are waiting for him to make a mistake.
So overall then, Two Men in Town doesn’t quite deserve the mauling it has received from some critics in the US. Bouchareb as expected has tried to find a more philosophical perspective than the original; it’s commendably understated for a film of this genre but fans of Whitaker will feel that his talents have been underused.
Review by Tom Peters
[SRA value=”3″ type=”YN”]
Two Men in Town is out on DVD and digital download on 07 July.