La voie de l’ennemi (Two Men in Town) Review

Posted: March 12, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Action, Drama, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

ImageThe two men in town are an ex-con and the sheriff. The two actors playing the two men are Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel. That alone is enough to pique interest in La voie de l’ennemi (Two Men in Town). Yet, director Rachid Bouchareb squanders the opportunity and good will that such a pairing and such a scenario engenders with an uninspired, meandering movie that drew scant attention at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in February.

The problems begin with the screenplay, credited to Bouchareb and two others. What is needed is a narrative with taut, constant pressure reflecting the vise the ex-con finds himself in, with the screws being alternately turned by a vengeful sheriff and the local crime lord. Instead, the film is a tepid tale, a loose remake of the 1973 French film Deux hommes dans la ville, but without the outrage and passion that director and screenwriter José Giovanni, who was on death row in the French penal system at one time, brought to the previous version.

Whitaker plays William Garnett, a career criminal sent away for the murder of a deputy sheriff.  After converting to Islam in prison, he is released to serve his parole in the same town where he committed his crime. Waiting to trip him up and send him back to prison is Keitel as the sheriff.  Wanting to lure him back into criminal activity is a local gangster (Luis Guzmán), who is appreciative of Garnett’s skills and the silence he maintained throughout his incarceration. Seeking to keep Garnett on the tightrope he is walking is the parole officer played by Brenda Blethyn, in an interesting and oddly effective casting decision. Garnett’s overseer is a pudgy, aging female, who approaches her responsibilities with an overarching sense of fairness, while naively expecting those around her to follow the rules.

Garnett meets and romances a bank employee named Plot Device, umm, Teresa Flores (Dolores Heredia) who becomes, not surprisingly, a pressure point those around Garnett seek to exploit. The only other character of note is Garnett’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who appears in one awkward, implausible scene that resembles nothing so much as an actor’s workshop exercise.

The biggest disappointment among the cast, however, is Keitel. Bouchareb fails to elicit a convincing performance from an actor who is usually one of the surest bets in the business. Inexplicably, Keitel displays no appetite for bringing any nuance to his part. The part is as ill-fitting on him as the baggy lawman’s uniform he wears throughout. By contrast, Whitaker is in fighting trim for his turn as William Garnett.  He brings a laser-like focus and intensity to the struggle to stay on the righteous path.

One other strong point here is the setting. The vistas of the southwest United States are stirring, yet at the same time, Bouchareb conveys a sense that the town and immediate surrounding area is simply another prison for Garnett. However, even that along with Whitaker’s remarkable performance, is not enough to salvage the film.

Two stars.

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