dir: Hossein Amini
Something being based on a Patricia Highsmith novel isn’t always a guarantee of quality, but it is often enough to pique my interest. And if you cast Viggo Mortensen in something, well, I’m halfway through the door.
Kristen Dunst? Eh, not so much, but Oscar Isaacs I really like. The Two Faces of January is essentially a three-hander, something of a period piece, probably set in the 1960s. It’s something of a low-key thriller, but not in the sense that it’s like a spy action film or anything. It’s about a con artist (Isaacs), who gets caught up with a couple of con artists (Dunst and Mortensen), where you start to wonder who is better at it, and who is going to get what they want, and how many people are going to be left alive at the end of it.
The setting is Greece, and it’s filmed in such a way that makes it look a thousand times nicer than it actually is. Also, being set in the last century, it helpfully avoids having to acknowledge the current dire economic circumstances, and saves on costumes (most of the old people in the flick are wearing their own ‘vintage’ clothing from the 1960s without having even to be asked). In fact many of those old Greek people probably don’t even know the war is over.
Which war? What does it matter? The oldest ones probably think the Turks are still in power. Rydal (Oscar Isaacs) is a smooth, smarmy American who works as a tour guide to giggly American girls around the Parthenon. He presumably sleeps with the more easily suggestible ones, but his process is more about tricking them out of their hardly earned money more than tricking them out of their panties. He looks like a local (which is either a compliment or an insult, depending on where you come from), and speaks the language fluently enough to fool Americans (but probably not Greeks).
As he’s working his way into the good graces of some trust fund dilettante, he becomes intrigued by an American couple; Chester (Mortensen) is well turned out, older and seemingly smooth, and his wife Colette (Dunst) is significantly younger and charming. They’re well dressed and clean looking, so I’m sure they must be nice people.
Since Rydal is something of a petty crook, I thought, when he looks at the couple, perhaps he sees some easy marks to take advantage of. But it’s not as simple as that. Is he looking appreciatively at the wife, is he wondering about the man. Is he gay, is he straight, is he looking for their money or their friendship?
When his squeeze mocks him for looking Colette over, he mutters no, no, it’s just that the man reminds him of his father. It could just be a throwaway line to reassure one’s gal that they’re the apple of their eye, because he could really be checking her out. We see, briefly, that Rydal’s father is on his mind, for two key reasons: he died recently, and we sense that Rydal and his father did not get along.
Rydal worms his way into the couple’s good graces instead of the panties of that aforementioned tourist, and it’s probably likely that it’s something he’ll regret not doing for the rest of his life. Had he gone with the girl instead of the couple, things might have turned out differently.
It’s funny, I went into this assuming that because Rydal was an obvious grafter, that his intentions towards the couple were nasty. It turns out that Rydal is not the only one we should be wary of.
I don’t think it spoils much to imply that the McFarlands, as they call themselves, are not exactly the Norman Rockwell perfect family portrait they appear to be. No one in any flick should be exactly who they appear to be, because that’s just dull. Nor is the dynamic between them an easy one to describe. There could even be an Oedipal dynamic going on, which, considering the majority of the story is set in Greece, is perhaps the perfect setting.
When Chester’s past comes knocking, the three of them end up hitting the road, or at least the sea, as they try to stay a couple of steps ahead of the authorities. Now, as they make their way from Athens to Crete, because Crete is presumably an easier place to sneak out of Greece from, we’re wondering whether Chester and Colette are at Rydal’s mercy, or whether he’s at theirs. Rydal, through a friend, has organised the creation of fake passports, but this could just be a ruse to get them isolated and vulnerable.
And yet we’re never sure whether Rydal and Chester are bound just by circumstance, or because Rydal sees Chester as something of a father figure, or because he literally reminds him of his father, or whether it’s jealousy that governs Chester’s actions, either of Colette’s affections, or being jealous of Rydal’s youth. We hear him sticking up for Rydal’s father, even though he’s never met the man, but mostly he does it to put Rydal in his place, a place Rydal doesn’t really appreciate.
This is, after all, a bit of a mystery, a lot of a thriller, and an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. I wouldn’t say it was the most thrilling thriller I’ve ever spent time thrilling through, but it was definitely a pleasure to watch. Oscar Isaacs is phenomenal as this character, with layers to his performance and his delivery that always kept me guessing about him. Even at the end, when everything is wrapped up in a neat little package, I still wondered about his characters true motivations along the way independent of the events that shape the outcome.
Viggo Mortensen is good as well, but it’s not the kind of performance I usually expect or demand from him. This chap is nothing like the late career characters he’s played in flicks like A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, which can display a number of different levels, yet remain somehow truthful and charismatic no matter how violent circumstances become.
Here he’s compelled to set aside the weathered charisma that comes naturally to him, to play a far less appealing character. He seems to be the perfect embodiment of the ostensibly decent guy who one day decided he deserved a little more, and that this led to two or more delusions: that he’s smart enough to compete with other criminals or the authorities, and that any violent or criminal thing he’s forced to do now will probably be the last, and it’ll go swimmingly.
Nothing good comes out of desperation. It’s not just a desperate scramble for survival, or for freedom (the freedom that comes from not being in a jail cell), but also for a certain quantity of money.
Plus, he’s a drunk, and like when people are drunks in real life, they don’t get drunk just in their spare time when everything’s fine and dandy. They also tend to get smashed at the absolute worst possible times, like when every cop in Europe is after them.
Plus, who’s going to get the girl? Is Colette a prize for the men to fight over, is she an accomplice, is she a damsel in distress needing to be saved, or is she a femme fatale for men to kill themselves and each other over? Her role, though on the surface the least nasty of the various liars, thieves and murderers involved, is perhaps the thinnest but also the most ambiguous.
She constantly reassures Chester, her substantially older husband, that he’s the wrinkly apple of her eye, but can you blame her for wanting to keep her options open? Or are we just assuming that she’s doing so, only because it’s what Chester fears the most?
She also doesn’t appear to realise how much of a dog Rydal is, who’s always on his best behaviour when around her, so much so, that you spend a lot of time wondering when the real danger will be revealed.
When the three protagonists get to the ruins of a certain labyrinth, a place where the myth goes that young people were sent each year as tribute in order to be eaten by the Minotaur, I wondered how closely the flick would go with a point it was alluding to but never made explicit, except to show the ancient mural of the beast that demanded sacrifice. I needn’t have wondered long. So too, does Rydal in the opening minutes of the film relate the tale of Theseus to his young gaggle of tourists, telling them of the fate that befell Theseus’s father when he saw the black sails of his returning vessel. Age does not always make way for youth, but cruel and ironic mistakes are often made along the way.
It impressed me that they went to the actual site of Knossos for the story to reach a certain climatic point. It impressed me most of all that the director and cinematographer made Greece look so good, when I know how much of a shithole it is from bitter personal experience.
What most impressed me was the keen performances, the deft directorial hand at play, and the way the flick didn’t need to be anything more than what it was, yet still had time for a bit of complicated psychological stuff along the way. There is perhaps nothing original about this flick, in that in the 1940s and 50s they made hundreds of flicks just like it. The thing is, they don’t make them like this these days, usually because they don’t imagine there’s enough of a market if there aren’t enough explosions, boobs or Liam Neeson tooling around shooting and torturing Albanians in exotic locales. I appreciated it for achieving a very strong sense of place and time, and a tense atmosphere, one in which I wasn’t really predicting what was coming down the line.
8 times and yet I still have no idea what 'Two Faces of January' actually means out of 10
“He was victim of the cruel tricks that gods play on men” – he was the only one, it’s never happened to anyone else – The Two Faces of January