The Two Faces of January: Berlin Review

Easy over Highsmith racks up the tension with a nice cast.

Screenwriter Hossein Amini makes a strong directing bow with psychological thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith.

Who can say no to a good Patricia Highsmith adaptation? Though her 1964 suspense thriller The Two Faces of January is not the easiest story to bring to the screen, its atmosphere is haunting even when the dash is missing. One of her publishers famously rejected the book, complaining that “a story can handle two neurotic characters but not three.” Since the film is entirely built around a trio of greedy, lying, vapid losers, it’s unlikely that the directing debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, Drive) is going to knock The Talented Mr. Ripley from its pedestal in the Highsmith pantheon, or even jar it slightly. Still the production, shot in Greece and Turkey, is truly lush and the actors – Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst – almost too subtle and nuanced for the roles they play. The result is easy viewing that should have a nice small screen life after Studio Canal releases theatrically in the UK, France, Australia and related territories.

The story opens in Athens at one of the world’s most clichéd tourist sights, the Parthenon. But it’s 1962 and things looked newer then. Tourists walk around in impeccably pressed frocks and high heels or white linen suits and panama hats, the sun is shining hotly, and yet there’s something in the zeitgeist that suggests an upcoming web of intrigue. Rydal (Isaac), a good-looking young American expat living in Greece, is playing tour guide to a group of breathless college girls while portentously talking about “the cruel tricks gods play on men,” when a swanky American couple frolicking around the ruins catch his eye.

Chester McFarland (Mortensen) is not easy to warm up at first glance. Much older than his pretty wife Colette (Dunst), there’s a shrewdness about him that allows him to size Rydal up on the spot, watching as the boy brazenly short-changes one of the girls on his tour. Rydal tells the couple he’s a Yale grad who‘s in Europe while he tries to figure out what he wants to do in life. Chester says he’s an investment broker and hires the boy to take them around. Neither one seems particularly trustworthy and the viewer makes a note.

Over dinner that evening, Rydal can’t take his eyes off the light-hearted Colette, though his own date (Daisy Bevan) seems equally worthy of attention, not to mention rich and available. Since the underground Colette-Rydal attraction is so crucial to the plot, it would have behooved everyone to work on a little chemistry.

In addition to jealousy, Chester has new problems to deal with when a private eye sent by the mob (played tough by a hard-nosed David Warshofsky) tracks him down to his luxurious hotel room, just as he and Colette are tucking into bed. Awkwardly, the men decide to talk in the bathroom, and by the next scene Chester is dragging his unconscious nemesis down the thickly carpeted hall back to his own room. Rydal appears at the wrong moment and is forced to help him, not realizing the trouble he’s getting into.

The most puzzling piece of plotting is why the McFarlands check out of the hotel in the dead of night, leaving their passports behind. The moment they leave the hotel they are on the lam, in a foreign country, without any way to get home. Sensing easy money to be made, Rydal follows them like a guardian angel and whisks them into hiding on the scintillating island of Crete, where a lot of story takes place. Suffice it to say things go from bad to much worse. Chester and Rydal finally square off as arch-enemies, playing for very high stakes and eventually concluding their business in a romantically filmed chase scene through nighttime Istanbul.

The film's major plus is its exotic atmosphere. It’s a time when you could still meet men like Chester who had been on the European front in World War II and returned as tourists, and when smart Ivy League grads could bum around the continent instead of paying off student loans. Then there was the seductive simplicity of Mediterranean life, all unguarded ruins where wayfarers can camp out overnight and freshly caught octopus drying in the sun. But compared to the fantasy Italy of Ripley, the joie de vivre is largely missing in this dark story.

On his first trip behind the camera, the British-Iranian Amini shows his skill at working with actors and sensing the way they can fill out literary characters. His screenplay generally feels more naturalistic than Highsmith, the dialogue less spare.  As Chester’s wife and Rydal’s potential seductress, Dunst has the least exciting role of the lot, something of a bone over which the men contend, glowering at each other. Mortensen’s elegant-until-cornered Chester is a layered character with quite a moral range, from nefarious swindler to a man able to make a grand redemptive gesture. Perpetually drunk and sweating under his straw hat, and glued to his suitcase full of valuables, he cuts an ugly but human figure vis-a-vis Rydal’s petty con man.  But as Chester points out, it’s only a matter of time before the younger man turns into him.    

Though he’s nowhere near the evil character Tom Ripley was, Rydal lets himself be swayed by greenbacks like a child by candy, leading to all kinds of greedy behavior.  Like the disreputable Llewyn Davis he recently played, Isaac manages to make Rydal appealing against all odds, but by such a slim margin that most viewers will carry an feeling of unsettling ambiguity to the end.  

Spanish composer Alberto Iglesia signs off on a lovely score that helps get the story through its slow moments, for instance when the trio wakes up on Crete and has to take a bus to the next town. Even in these deadbeat scenes, DoP Marcel Zyskind makes such magical use of light and locations that there’s always something to look at.


Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 9, 2014.

Cast:  Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky

Production companies: Working Title Films, Timnick Films for StudioCanal

Director: Hossein Amini
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Producers: Robyn Slovo, Tom Sternberg, Tin Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Tin Bricknell, Ron Halpern, Max Minghella
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costumes: Steven Noble
Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Jon Harris
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Sales Agent: StudioCanal
No rating, 96 minutes.