Thursday, October 23, 2014

When in Greece: The Two Faces of January

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of January

After seeing a high-concept, A-list thriller like Gone Girl, with its pushy smugness passing for sophistication and its cynical button-pushing that’s meant to make it seem like a provocative take on contemporary male-female relations—Gillian Flynn, who did the screenplay adaptation of her own novel, launched herself onto the bestseller lists after spending a decade writing for Entertainment Weekly, and it shows—the direct, elegant perversity of a trim, stylish thriller like Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January can feel like a walk in the fresh spring air after spending a week locked in the garage. This is Amini’s directing debut, but in the ‘90s he did the scripts for Iain Softley’s Henry James movie The Wings of the Dove and Michael Winterbottom’s Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude the Obscure.

More recently, he’s been credited with the scripts of such headbanging crime movies as Killshot, from an Elmore Leonard novel, and the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive. The Two Faces of January has a best-of-both-worlds quality. It’s based on a Patricia Highsmith novel that was first published in 1964, and is set mostly in Greece at the same time. It’s a trim, cutthroat story, but the touristy period settings give it some of the luxurious visual appeal that go with certain classic-lit adaptations. And with Viggo Mortensen, with his intimidatingly sky-scraping frame and Arrow Shirt profile swanking around the Acropolis in a light-colored suit and hat, with Kirsten Dunst as his much younger blonde wife, the atmosphere can suggest an episode of Mad Men where there’s no guarantee anyone will make it out alive.

Mortensen plays Chester, a swindler on the run in Europe. Chester and his wife Colette attract the attention of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young grifter who runs petty scams on the guileless Americans he meets while hiring himself out as a tour guide. As soon as Rydal lays eyes on Colette, he wants her, though in a neat kinky touch, the couple first notice him because he can’t seem to stop staring at Chester; it’s like a Twilight Zone episode in which a young man becomes fixated on a man who turns out to be his older self. (Mortensen is about a dozen years older than the 42-year-old Chester of the novel, which adds something like poignance to the romantic rivalry between two guys who could pass for spiritual twins.)

Daisy Bevan and Oscar Isacc in The Two Faces of January
It’s no surprise that Chester is a criminal, but given his handsome veneer, it’s a bit of a shock to learn how unsmooth he is at it; he flips out and kills a private detective (David Warshofsky) who’s tracked him down on behalf of his victims. When Rydal, not grasping the full seriousness of the situation, helps him conceal the body long enough to get away, the two men—each of whom wants the other out of the picture—become reluctantly joined at the hip. The characters of the two men, if not the relationship between them, carry echoes of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf in Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, except that Chester, the more murderously amoral of the two, is Tom Ripley at the end of his criminal career instead of at its beginning; he’s both a twisted father figure and a cautionary example for the younger Rydal, a product of a good family whose grifting may just be a phase.

Highsmith’s books have always transferred beautifully to movies, even those movies, such as Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on a Train, that provide a hero for the audience by redefining what at least one character won’t stoop to. The really important thing with Highsmith is to get the atmosphere right, to suggest a level of high life so seductive that it’s easy to understand why someone would blow up a trailer load of nuns to get a piece of it. (The most unforgivable mistake an adapter could make would be to go soft on the material and try to reveal the psychological pain at the heart of Highsmith’s glib sociopaths, as Anthony Minghella did in his gorgeous-looking but epically inane The Talented Mr. Ripley.) The Two Faces of January, lovingly scored by Alberto Iglesias and shot by Marcel Zyskind, captures the look and feel of a rapturous world that’s so scarily treacherous that you’re content to observe it from the safety of your theater seat; the invitingly bright, warm sunshine looks as if it could bite. Opening a movie like this in October might almost count as a public service.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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