The Two Faces of January


Patricia Highsmith’s literary career was boosted by the movies—Hitchcock’s adaptation of her 1950 debut Strangers on a Train bottle-rocketed her into the public’s attention—but then her thrillers spark-showered down so many screen-adaptations that some drifted in under the cover of darkness. There’s something aptly low-key and distant about that—books by an American émigré and outsider (the bisexual Highsmith, who lived abroad starting in 1963, was unsociable, alcoholic and atheist), usually about cool con-men and sexually ambiguous psychopaths stealthily plying their craftiness in Europe, attract top-notch non-American directors whose adaptations get released to little bottom-line attention back in the US. How many remember The American Friend (with Dennis Hopper), German auteur Wim Wenders’ 1977 take on the third in Highsmith’s “Ripliad” quintet? Ripley’s Game (with John Malkovich) was sharply adapted again in 2002 by Italian director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter), but went straight to disc in North America. In 2005, Canadian-born Brit director Roger Spottiswoode’s version of Ripley Under Ground (with Barry Pepper), buried three years, was finally released to scant fanfare, reviews or audiences.

Now The Two Faces of January, from one of Highsmith’s non-Ripley books, has snuck onto screens this side of the Atlantic. The directing debut of Iranian-English screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive), it wends through Greece, Crete and Turkey. The story—named after Janus, god of beginnings and endings, looking back and ahead—opens in 1962, in Athens, where the Acropolis provides a stately historic façade as one dapper man’s deceptions catch up to him in the present. In the Greek capital, cold-eyed businessman Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen, excellent) and wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) hire Rydal (Oscar Isaac, excellent), a tour guide and small-time grifter. After a fateful confrontation in their hotel room, the couple turn to the Greek-speaking, cash-skimming Rydal for more help.

There’s the homoerotic frisson of interest and intrigue so common to Highsmith’s works—Rydal’s curious about Chester from the start, apparently because he resembles his father, recently dead. Chester’s wary of Rydal the more he talks to his younger, suave, blond wife. The moment when Rydal realizes a darker truth of Chester’s misdeeds, he stares towards him and Chester puts his wedding-ringed hand around his wife’s (to comfort her or himself?) … as complicity, solicitude and self-interest blur and shimmer in the sun, the Highsmith-ian triangle of danger, deceit and desire tightens into a noose. (Within this tangle of suspense, the thread of the labyrinth myth—architect Daedalus and son Icarus; Theseus slaying the Minotaur—is unspooled, too.)

Amini marks Chester’s dissolution, from a husband in charge to a man lost in a fog of suspicion, amid the faded grandeur of the Mediterranean. In one sequence, tinged with the early morning’s cold grey, a fisherman slaps a squid dead against rocks as Chester, hungover and bedraggled, lifts himself from the bench where he’s slept. His eventual fall, haunted by echoes of patriarchy, filial disillusion, and a return to the fatherland, is a pitiful tragedy-in-miniature. A crisp, elegant throwback to a classic era of character-driven thrillers, set amid the ruins and remains of classical antiquity, The Two Faces of January unearths many dark little secrets … and pleasures.

Fri, Nov 7 – Wed, Nov 12
Metro Cinema at the Garneau

Leave a Comment