Ugly Americans Amongst the Ruins (Film Review: “The Two Faces of January”)

No one is who they seem to be in this stylish thriller set in 1962 and beautifully shot on location in Greece and Turkey.

SnapShot Plot

In the well-crafted, Hitchcockian film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Two Faces of Januarythree displaced Americans meet among the crumbling ruins of the Acropolis and soon form a sinister love triangle which pits one against the other even as they are forced into a deadly alliance to survive. Viggo Mortensen is masterful in his portrayal of Chester McFarland, a well-heeled Wall Street type who’s brought his lovely young wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst) to Europe for a lavish tour of Greece, Italy and France. Or at least that’s what they’d have us believe. When the film begins, a dashingly handsome tour guide named Rydal (perfectly imagined by Oscar Isaac) captivates a group of impressionable American college girls, and then swindles one of them out of some pocket money all the while he’s seducing her with his self-deprecating wit and guileless charm . . . a small time American grifter just scraping by in a borrowed country. In a single mysterious glance exchanged between Rydal and Chester, the foundation is laid for what will soon turn into a simmering hotbed of suspense and betrayal. It’s clear that each of them has skeletons in their closets and when fate joins them at the hip, implicating them all in a criminal cover-up, the blinders come off and they are revealed for who and what they are, warts and all. And still, deepest motives and desires remain mysterious until the bitter, shattering climax in this lush and resonant movie.



Parting Shot

Hollywood loves Patricia Highsmith. Her novels in the 50’s and 60’s about morally flawed individuals and relationships, class envy, identity & impersonation, and of course, Americans behaving badly abroad (as well as the five books featuring her beloved serial murderer, Tom Ripley) have been made into countless films both here and in Europe. Perhaps the two most notable – both of which lurk in the shadows of this film – are Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the latter written by Hossein Amini. In The Two Faces of January, Amini not only penned the script but took a crack at directing his first feature film. It’s an impressive feat that he managed to capture the look and feel of the early 60’s in Europe, especially on what he stated was a shoestring budget. He says that since he read The Two Faces of January almost 25 years ago, the book has stayed with him and, thanks to the support of Viggo Mortensen, he finally had a chance to bring it to the big screen.

The on-location shoots in Athens, the island of Crete, the ruins of Knossos, and finally the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul went far in achieving the accuracy of time, place, and mood to the original text. The exceptional cinematography of Marcel Zyskind made those sun-drenched locations in Greece and the foreboding alleyways of Istanbul rise to an almost visceral degree. With the vaguely formal placement of the characters against their backdrops, the film retains an old-fashioned, almost film-noir sensibility made even more so by the imploring musical score by Alberto Iglesias, the detailed production design by Michael Carlin, and evocative costume design by Steven Noble.

But without the seamless dynamic between its co-stars, The Two Faces of January would just be a good cinematic exercise in successful production values. I can’t imagine any other actors doing this film. Oscar Isaac (you know him from last year’s sleeper hit, the Coen brothers’  Inside Llewyn Davis) brings such a potent mix of larcenous charm and poignant heroism to the character of Rydal, even when you keep asking the proverbial question (of his motivations), Why? The casting of Kirsten Dunst is brilliant, as she so embodies that perky all-American girl-next-door beauty, but one look in her eyes and the guilt, sorrow and fear that her character has been carrying around is right there, front and center. And finally, what Viggo Mortensen brings to the character of Chester (or whatever his name really is) is so rich, so nuanced, that it makes his ethical challenges that much more heartbreaking, his desperate jealousy that much more forgivable. . . not to mention how he can make cigarette smoking almost another character entirely!

I was wondering about the title, The Two Faces of January and surmise that it probably refers to the Roman God, Janus, who is associated with journeys, beginnings and transitions. He is usually depicted as having two faces . . . hence an apt symbol for this intriguing film.

The Two Faces of January is Available on Netflix.

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