The man carrying out the vicious attack we see in the opening act is William Garnett (Forest Whitaker), a former sheriff, sentenced to an 18 years in confinement for murdering his deputy. However upon his release, the recently converted Muslim wants nothing more than an easy life, taking on a job at a local farm, under the watchful eye of his stern parole officer (Brenda Blethyn). However with the current sheriff (Harvey Keitel) desperate to send him back to prison, and an influential crook (Luis Guzmán) wanting to negotiate some business plans with his old ally, it seems that Garnett will have to work hard to stay clear of trouble.
Garnett is an intriguing entry point into this world, as we’re never quite convinced of his intentions, particularly in the early stages. Unsure what he’s quite capable of, it’s difficult to judge whether he’s up to something, or if he genuinely strives for a quiet, normal existence. With the opening scene portraying his barbaric, brutal nature – and the sheriff’s deep concerns about his release – a foreboding element lingers over proceedings for a lengthy amount of time. Given the heinous crime which begins this title, it’s a real testament to the absorbing Whitaker that he can then proceed to gain the respect of the audience, as you slowly begin to trust and sympathise with him, as we take on the position of the parole officer in that regard, seeing the character predominantly from her perspective. It also helps that Whitaker just has this vulnerability to his demeanour, he seems like a broken man, and as such makes it easier to defend and support his cause.
Conversely, there is no real antagonist to believe in, and the film suffers greatly as a result. Guzmán is effectively taking on that role, but he’s not sinister nor threatening enough to fully believe in. That’s not to say he can’t play such an antagonist, but his intrinsic comedic presence is explored by Bouchareb, as he’s given the occasional one-liner, seeking only in undermining the character, and detracting from his supposed intimidation. Meanwhile, Garnett’s love interest Teresa (Dolores Heredia) is a severely underwritten addition, bringing little to the film other than being a mere plot point. Their whole relationship is somewhat jarring too, as one that moves so swiftly and impulsively, it’s extremely difficult to invest in.
There are a handful of brilliant scenes (one between Whitaker and his adoptive mother played by Ellen Burstyn stands out), however they’re few and far between, separated by tedious moments of little consequence. At least Whitaker can leave with his head held high. We learn form this that he can handle cattle, speak Spanish and ride a motorbike. It seems there is nothing the man can’t do. Apart from, you know, choosing the right scripts.