Two Faces of January

June 28, 2014
Viggo Mortensen in 'The Two Faces of January' (2014)
Viggo Mortensen in 'The Two Faces of January' (2014)

Some authors do not lend themselves to a cinematic adaptation, others write books that run through the reader’s mind like images on a screen. In the former category think of those tortuous psychologists of the Zeitgeist such as Proust, Mann and Musil. In the latter, close to the top of the list, stands Patricia Highsmith (1921-95).

The Two Faces of January is the latest adaptation of a Highsmith novel, following a healthy run of films about her hero-villain, Tom Ripley. She got off to an excellent start in 1951, when Alfred Hitchcock adapted her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, and has remained a favourite author for movie directors. Perhaps the novelist is due for a bio pic herself, as her private life seems to have been even more dark and dismal than that of Yves Saint Laurent.

The Two Faces of January represents the directorial debut of Hossein Amidi, known as the scriptwriter for films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). It’s not a masterpiece that will haunt you forever, but a slick, absorbing thriller that owes nothing to special effects or long drawn-out action scenes. True to the Highsmith touch, guilty secrets are revealed under pressure while characters are drawn ever deeper into the mire.

The protagonists in Highsmith’s stories usually wear at least two faces, but she is never so banal to allow a mask of goodness to conceal evil intentions. Highsmith is better defined as a writer of literature rather than pulp fiction who always mixes good and bad, with actions being dictated by desperate circumstances. She implicitly asks the reader: “What would you do in this predicament?”

It’s the 1960s, and Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young American drop-out with a gift for languages, is scraping a living by taking tourists around the sights in Athens. He is a chancer, willing to seduce the pretty girls among his clients and rip off small sums of money whenever he gets the chance.

He turns on the charm when he meets a wealthy American couple, Colette and Chester MacFarland (Kirsten Dubst and Viggo Mortensen), but his new friends aren’t quite what they seem. By chance he surprises Chester in compromising act and immediately offers his assistance.

It’s obvious that Rydal is more interested in helping Colette than her husband, and this is not lost on Chester, whose jealousy increases with every passing contact between his wife and the younger man.

There are plenty of opportunities for sexual tensions to fester, as the three are joined in a flight from the law, travelling from Athens to Crete, before the story concludes in Istanbul. On the way, Chester grows more dangerous and desperate, while Rydal reveals a fierce stubbornness. As a tourist, Colette may resemble Doris Day in the The Man Who Knew too Much (1955), but she is never so squeaky clean.

Even if you’re not taken with the story, Amini has provided a memorable travellogue, with seductive views of the Acropolis in Athens, the arid landscape of Crete and Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Having been in Athens and Istanbul myself a few weeks ago, I can vouch for the veracity of these atmospheric scenes.

The Two Faces of January is a late addition to the genre of the psychological thriller, brought to its apogee by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s an old-fashioned film in the best sense, featuring murder without buckets of gore, and the kind of suspense that feels like a noose slowly tightening.

As befits a story set in Athens, there is also a touch of Greek tragedy. Smooth, worldly Chester has set a chain of events in motion back in the United States that arrives to haunt him in Europe. Instead of taking his young wife on a romantic holiday, he turns her into a fugitive. Far from home they face the prospect of never being able to go back to New York, as they descend from the height of luxury into the squalor of cheap village flophouses.

Rydal identifies Chester with his own father whom he has grown to hate, and there is a strongly Oedipal dimension to his lust for Colette. Having agreed to help the MacFarlanes he has become an accomplice to Chester’s crime, so that each man has an uneasy hold on the other. Colette may be the shared object of desire but the most fascinating relationship in the film is between the older and younger man. Chester is a big-time crook, Rydal a petty one, but neither is devoid of a conscience. Although the antagonists are not exactly likeable but we can’t help being anxious about when and where they will keep their appointments with fate.

Two Faces of January
Directed by Hossein Amini
Screenplay by Hossein Amini, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky
UK/USA/France, rated M, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28 June, 2014.