Forest Whitaker shines in Rachid Bouchareb’s tale of a former prisoner who forms a friendship with his parole officer. Martin Carr takes a look at the film…
From its opening sun baked vista to that closing image in blinding silhouette, Two Men is a character study in individual isolation. A potential companion piece for Coen classic No Country For Old Men, or Terence Malick road movie Badlands.
Rachid Bouchareb has crafted a slow burning think piece using character actors capable of delivering depth without dialogue. This acrid slice of Americana uses heat and dust as much as words and gestures. Breathing life into characters who carry their personal baggage like so much lost luggage. Forever burdened and embittered against each other, in a landscape offering little respite and minimal chance of closure. A pervading feeling which is impossible to imagine without the presence of Forest Whitaker.
People who have worked alongside him including James McAvoy for The Last King of Scotland, talk about the power of this actor. To call his career choices eclectic is to do him a disservice. Good Morning, Vietnam, The Color of Money, Platoon, Species, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog, Bird this list is endless. What makes Whitaker interesting beyond those choices are the motives behind it. His decisions never seem to be about money, it always comes down to character. Like Viola Davis in anything you can name, Whitaker is good even in bad films. Whether on screen in a scene stealing cameo or for the duration. A track record which remains untarnished by Two Men In Town.
Emotionally scarred from years of incarceration Whitaker gives Garrett a fragile withdrawn quality, which verges on the brooding. A man trying to rebuild himself from the ashes of past transgressions, he is figuratively caged by circumstance. Tarred by the opinions of local townsfolk who fail to see passed his acts of savagery. Garrett is pushed to breaking point by Harvey Keitel’s Sheriff Agati. A man with his own petty concerns and selfish agenda. Not that the portrayal suffers, but you sometimes get the impression Keitel is going through the motions. Whether this has more to do with the writing than his performance is up for debate. Essentially though this fails to detract from the overall impact, largely due to Brenda Blethyn’s Emily Smith.
Feeling like a sibling of Marge Gunderson, Blethyn stands toe to toe with Whitaker in scenes which would have spooked lesser actors. Virtually unrecognisable and sporting a solid American accent, Blethyn casts a formidable shadow. Undaunted and diminutive as the solitary female authority figure, she supports and chides Whitaker forging an unusual alliance. It is in these moments that Two Men In Town becomes more than just another exercise in formulaic cinema. Bouchareb allows moments of warmth to invade their personal space, giving Blethyn’s Emily a maternal aura. Which in turn alleviates the atmospheric oppression brought about by the burnished and barren location. If only the human angle had extended beyond stereotypes for Luis Guzman and Dorlores Heredia, then Two Men may have been a real success.
Labouring under the label of old friend into illicit activities and love interest respectively, both these actors get short thrift. Guzman gets little opportunity to fill us in on Terence beyond the perfunctory basics. While Heredia’s Theresa is signposted redemption for our protagonist writ large. Again this is down to the writing which fails to serve either of them well. For that reason they feel side lined, tissue thin and plot devices made flesh. While Ellen Burstyn should have consulted her agent before signing on. She has a few moments with Whitaker but I fear the rest resides on someone’s cutting room floor.
However beyond these flaws Two Men In Town remains an entertaining two-hander. Redeemed by unique performances from the great and underrated in which Blethyn elevates Emily Smith by offering us a masterclass in understated characterisation. Something which will ultimately bring its own rewards.