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Two Men in Town

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 19, 2015
Two Men in Town

The title of the Forest Whitaker / Harvey Keitel vehicle "Two Men in Town" refers to the characters played by Whitaker and Keitel. But what does that title mean? That they are the only two real men in the town -- presumably Deming, New Mexico, though the town goes unnamed and we hear about the county, Luna (which borders both Arizona and Mexico) instead? Or that the town, as the old Wild West cliche has it, is too small for the both of them?

There are many questions raised by the film, which was directed by Rachid Bouchareb, a French filmmaker of Algerian extraction, and written by Bouchareb and a small committee that includes Daniel Boulanger, José Giovanni, Yasmina Khadra, and Olivier Lorelle. There are not a lot of answers, however -- far fewer, in fact, than there are trite characterizations and cookie-cutter plot points.

Whitaker plays Will Garnett, an African-American man raised by a white adoptive mother (Ellen Burstyn, who gets star billing but only has a cameo appearance) and caught up in a lawless border culture that seems to include drug running and the muling of pregnant women from South of the U.S. border. Garnett has spent eighteen years in prison for killing a Sheriff's deputy; during that time, he has educated himself, mentored other prisoners, and converted to Islam.

Upon Garnett's parole, he is assigned to the supervision of newcomer Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn, star of Bouchareb's 2009 film "London River"). Smith is far more concerned with Garnett's welfare and successful reintegration into society than is Sheriff Agati (Keitel), who holds a grudge agains Garnett for having killed his deputy. Agati and Smith soon find themelves at loggerheads, with Smith doing everything she can to help Garnett while Agati goes out of his way to try to sabotage Garnett's chances.

Keitel doesn't have nearly as much screen time as we might wish he did -- not because of his performance (which, like Whitaker's seldom rises above adequacy), but because of his character's intriguing contradictions. Agati has a heart, and truly feels for the people who make their way to United States, or die in the desert trying to get here, a capacity of empathy that makes his harassment of Garnett all the more interesting.

But such is the case with the film overall. Why is it meaningful that Garnett has found Allah, rather than Jesus, during his time in the jug? How did he come to be adopted by a (seemingly) single white woman? And what's with his relationship with Terence (a largely wasted Luis Guzmán), who is either a close friend or a family member, and also a known criminal with whom Garnett cannot have any contact lest he lose his parole status and be sent back inside?

There is a paint-by-numbers love interest, too. Garnett falls for Teresa (Dolores Heredia), a bank worker; she's smart and strong, so you have to wonder just why she falls for him in turn, despite their short acquaintance. Teresa is an immigrant, but her story is only suggested, never filled in. She seems less like a character than a device, one more pressure point for Agati and Terence to exploit as each of them tries to bend, or break, Garnett to their will.

The disc's sole special feature (other than TV spots to advertise the film, which don't really count in my book) is a documentary titled "Fences." As though in keeping with the film's hazy themes, the doc has little to do directly with "Two Men in Town," addressing instead a miles-long stretch of border wall between the state of New Mexico and Mexico, the sovereign nation just South of our border. The wall is a debacle; even its supporters acknowledge that the highly porous and expensive barrier (costing $5 million per mile) isn't going to keep out illegal immigrants. (One interviewee hilariously claims that the wall's true purpose is keep U.S. livestock safe from "diseased" Mexican cattle.) Republicans, Democrats, and Tea Partiers all put in their two cents' worth about immigration, gun rights, and what it means to live in a border community; their comments range from contemptible (one Tea Partier reckons it's safe to go to the Mexican side in the morning, while the Mexicans are sleeping off the previous night's drug-fueled orgies of violence) to thoughtfully impotent. It's a fascinating film, but why is it here?

The film was produced with the participation of a number of film entities, among them Cohen Media Group, which must account for Cohen's releasing of the Blu-ray. As with the Australian thriller "Swerve," also released by Cohen, this is a second-rate movie; fans of Cohen's excellent restoration work and re-releases of vintage movies shouldn't come looking for a modern classic here.


"Two Men in Town"
Blu-ray
$24.99
http://cohenmedia.net/films/2-men-in-town

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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