Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rachid Bouchareb, a long time festival favorite, has taken the general story of writer/director Jose Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title and relocated it from France to a New Mexico border town. It touches on many elements such as rehabilitation of criminals, small town justice, human personality traits, freedom and justice, and conversion to Islam.
Opening with the silhouette of a brutal murder against the sunset in a New Mexico desert, the film has a western feel replete with the sense of doom and impending showdown. Forest Whitaker stars as Garnett, a paroled man who has just been released after serving 18 years for killing a deputy. Despite a life of crime that began when he was 11 years old, Garnett was a model prisoner who obtained his GED and mentored others while becoming a converted Muslim. His words make it clear he wants to put his old life behind and start fresh – however, his actions show he still struggles with explosive anger issues.
In a move that seems counterintuitive, Garnett is confined while on parole to the county in which he killed the deputy. The local sheriff (Harvey Keitel … who else would it be?) sets about making things difficult for Garnett, and expresses anger at his release while the “deputy is still dead”. The idealistic parole officer is played by Brenda Blethyn, so the stage is set for the clash of philosophies: trust and rehabilitation vs historical behavior and justice. Adding one more challenge to Garnett’s new world is the presence of his old crime boss played by Luis Guzman, who of course, wants him back in the business.
While many folks all over the globe struggle endlessly to find love; Garnett is 2 days out of prison when he falls for the local banker played by Delores Heredia. Herein lies the problems with the movie: the love connection just happens too quickly; Guzman is never the ominous presence of a truly bad guy; Keitel only gets to offer glimpses of his disgust at Garnett’s freedom. These three characters are all severely underwritten despite the efforts of three fine actors.
If not for the terrific performance of Forest Whitaker, the film would fall totally flat. It’s his screen presence that keeps us watching, hoping against all odds that he will find the peace he so desperately seeks. There is a wonderful scene with Whitaker and Ellen Burstyn, and a couple of the scenes with Whitaker and Blethyn are powerful, but the other pieces just never pack the punch necessary for this one to fully click.