"You can't forget the past any more than you can change it," notes Los Angeles private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in The Two Jakes. In this sequel to Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown, the mention of the name "Katherine Mulwray" on a recording needed for evidence in a murder case sends Jake on an inward journey to the past and his feelings of guilt, depression, and regret over the tragic death of his lover 11 years earlier.
It is 1948 and the private detective who specializes in divorce cases is richer, fatter, and a member of a posh country club. The widespread corruption which Gittes discovered in Los Angeles in Chinatown is evident in the machinations of a real estate developer (Harvey Keitel) who is selling tract housing in the San Fernando Valley; in the greed of an oil tycoon (Richard Farnsworth); and in the amorality of a nasty hood (Ruben Blades), an angry cop (David Keith), and two smooth-talking lawyers (Frederic Forrest and Eli Wallach).
Women are not what they seem a widow (Madeline Stowe) turns out to be as unfaithful as her murdered husband while the wife (Meg Tilly) of the developer harbors her own secrets behind a façade of cool sophistication.
Although Robert Towne's screenplay for The Two Jakes meanders all over the place, it fits the story which is told from the point of view of a detective trying to fit all the pieces of a puzzle together. Jack Nicholson's portrait of Jake Gittes is a laser-sharp study of middle age with its mixtures of world weariness, heavy breathing, and tolerance for ambiguity. And as a director, Nicholson does everything possible to accentuate the film's essential message we may think we're done with the past, but it almost never is done with us.