No Country for Re-Socialized Men

Ewa Wildner reviews Rachid Bouchareb’s iconoclastic crime drama TWO MEN IN TOWN, which features in the 2014 Berlinale Competition.

Forest Whitaker in TWO MEN IN TOWN

Often when the sun is setting in a Western, we can expect to see the good guys riding horses toward the horizon. In the Berlinale Competition film TWO MEN IN TOWN there are plenty of setting suns, but the good guy, William (Forest Whitaker), instead of riding a horse, is first seen kneeling on the ground smashing in someone’s head with a rock. So it’s a bit uncertain that the good guy is a good guy.

In Rachid Bouchareb’s movie, nothing is as it seems, and well-established cinema tropes get mercilessly debunked. A housewife singing and polishing something on her porch looks innocent, until we see that what she’s polishing is a gun. The sheriff (Harvey Keitel) turns out to be more morally ambiguous than we might expect from his white hat. After eighteen years in prison, William rides his motorcycle with the wind in his face and nothing but the Texas highway and horizon before him. We see him smile, and disturbingly, in another context, this same smile returns to his face yet we read it as sinister.

What William finds over the course of the film is that with limitless freedom there comes limitless loneliness. It’s a condition shared by all the characters – as if loneliness inevitably comes along with citizenship in the small town where the film is set. Each of these characters is so fully developed that, depending on which you choose to focus your interpretation on, the film tells a different story. The main plot asks whether a simple life is achievable after imprisonment. But the film can also be read as a critique of American patriotism, through the portrayals of the sheriff (at the barbecue he hosts for a soldier just back from Afghanistan, the guests recite the Pledge of Allegiance) and William’s criminal brother (Luis Guzmán), who smuggles pregnant women from Mexico to help them achieve the American Dream.

Normally an abundance of issues rarely serves a film well. Here, however, the issues are skillfully blended into the story, making it engaging and pleasurable rather than dissipating one’s interest. In the unconfined spaces of TWO MEN IN TOWN, there is room for many characters and interpretations.