American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Denzel Washington, who played a hateful bad guy in "Training Day," is a more sympathetic slickster in "Out of Time," where he cheats on his wife and steals money, but has his reasons: His wife has already left him and is filing for divorce, he's cheating with his first love from high school, she's married to a wife-beater, and he steals the money to help her afford cancer therapy. So we sympathize with him as he digs himself into a hole. Any reasonable observer would consider him guilty of murder, theft and arson -- and one such observer is his estranged wife, who is also the detective assigned to the case.
Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock, the sheriff of Banyon Key, Fla., a sleepy backwater where nothing much goes wrong. He is still on good terms with Detective Alexandra Cole (Eva Mendes), but their marriage has wound down and they're preparing for a split. That gives him time for a torrid affair with Ann Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), whose husband Chris (Dean Cain) is a violent and jealous man. Matt narrowly avoids being caught by the husband, and that's the first of many narrow escapes in a plot that cheerfully piles on the contrivances.
Ann reveals to Matt that she's dying from lung and liver cancer. Chris has purchased a $1 million life insurance policy; she changes the beneficiary to Matt, who steals $500,000 in impounded drug loot from his office safe, so that she can go to Europe for alternative therapy. The theory is that he can replace the money with the insurance payout, but alas Ann and Chris both die in a suspicious fire, and the feds suddenly decide they need the drug money immediately. Matt seems guilty any way you look at it -- his name on the insurance policy even provides a motive -- and to make things worse, a neighbor saw him lurking around the house shortly before it burned down.
There are more details, many more, which I will suppress because they provide the central entertainments of the movie (what I've described is the setup, before Matt's troubles really get sticky). The movie is in the spirit of those overplotted 1940s crime movies where the hero's dilemma is so baffling that it seems impossible for him to escape; the screenplay by David Collard is inspired in part by "The Big Clock" (1948). All circumstantial evidence points to Matt; Hitchcock described this dilemma as "the innocent man wrongly accused," but the catch is, Matt isn't entirely innocent. He did steal the money, for starters.