Two Men in Town opens with a brutal bludgeoning as the sun rises over the desolate New Mexico desert. The man receiving the beating goes unidentified, but the man providing it with a hefty rock is William (Forest Whitaker). A couple of scenes later, we watch as he gets released from prison, on parole after serving an 18-year prison stint for murdering the deputy sheriff of his border town.
Stepping out into the free world, William seems like a reformed man. He's a Muslim now, hoping to start a new life, as he explains repeatedly later, with a regular job, "a little house, a little lawnmower, wife, kids, neighbors." The violence from the opening scene seems to belong to a different person, though the cautious manner in which William walks, talks, and holds his body suggests an anger that's now bottled up, not evaporated.
The parole officer assigned to William, a recent arrival named Emily (Brenda Blethyn), is sympathetic to his apparent rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the town's sheriff, Bill (Harvey Keitel), hasn't left the job since William's imprisonment, hasn't forgiven William for the murder of his deputy and only wants to see him put back behind bars.
There's much about Two Men in Town's hardened-criminal-goes-straight story, adapted from a 1973 film of the same name, that's unsurprising. Once back in town, William quickly runs into his old partner-in-crime, Terence (Luis Guzmán), who refuses to accept William's change of heart, thus putting William's freedom and his future with his new girlfriend, Teresa (Dolores Heredia), at risk.
Each character receives a stock set of motivations—personal vendetta disguised as moral outrage for Bill, altruistic social justice for Emily. A half-hearted attempt to provide Bill some depth by showing his sympathy toward immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally never quite goes anywhere. In fact, while the movie hints at plenty of political themes, Bouchareb doesn't actually seem too concerned with any of them. For instance, William's conversion to Islam almost never becomes a point of conflict, as you might expect it to. Bouchareb mines it more for blunt symbolism—the hand-washing, the carefully-arranged clothing—than social studies.
Any nuance the film finds, it finds in the landscape. After its opening burst of violence, the film settles into a languid pace. There are substantial stretches where the camera rests quietly on the isolated town and bleak surrounding desert, hemmed in by a mountainous backdrop. The film's small New Mexico town gets cast as purgatorial—its residents somehow both confined and transient—and the feeling that dominates as William encounters repeated obstacles to his desired life isn't heightened tension but resignation.
Bouchareb lays it on a bit thick here as well—a side story of an dying man who's denied permission to spend his last year on parole with his family in Ohio makes the messaging difficult to ignore. Nevertheless, it's this mood, this sense of constriction in open spaces, of characters stuck in their ways, stuck in their small towns, and stuck in their grudges, that most stayed with me afterward. Such questions about fate and destiny are, like so much else in the film, exactly what you would expect from Two Men in Town's story. But in this case, the movie's melancholic, atmospheric tone, coupled with a muted performance from Whitaker, offers a new way into the material.