I’ve been game to see Hossein Amimi‘s The Two Faces of January (Magnolia, 10.3) since the premiere at last February’s Berlinale, which I missed due to being in Berlin for only four days and change. I finally saw it the night before last at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I’m definitely filing it under “reasonably decent, moderately engrossing Patricia Highsmith adaptations.” Set in 1962 Athens, Crete and Istanbul, it’s basically about two guys who reflect or echo their respective darker impulses (not unlike Highsmith’s Guy Haines and Bruno Antony in Strangers On A Train) becoming involved in a downswirl of mutual conning, killing, running from the law and fate closing in from all sides. The tension and suspense start early and build steadily, and right away you’re going away “okay, I get it…these guys are marked for doom.” And the ride is enjoyably diverting as far as it goes.
Investment con artist Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and younger trophy wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), roaming around Athens, hook up with Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a Greek-speaking American tour guide who cons his clients out of loose cash whenever he can. Before you know it Rydal, intrigued by Chester’s resemblance to his estranged father and nursing an attraction for Colette, is helping the couple escape from Greece after Chester has killed a grimy private detective who was trying to get Chester to return some of his swindled cash. They slip onto a boat heading for Crete where they’ll rendezvous with a provider of false passports, but Chester starts to go crazy with jealousy (he’s convinced that Rydal is looking to moisten his wife’s undergarments) and that leads to certain blows on certain heads. And then things really get glum and desperate.
What makes this a mid-range Highsmith flick as opposed to a first-rate one like Hitchcock’s Train, Wim Wender‘s The American Friend (’78) or Anthony Minghella‘s The Talented Mr. Ripley? Hard to say but I know “not great but not too bad” when I see it. The Two Faces of January lacks a certain scope or something…a certain dynamic kapow quality. It’s about three moderately intriguing but not especially likable characters who begin at a disadvantage and then are forced to cope with tougher and grimmer circumstances. Mortensen, Isaac and Dunst are B-level types who can’t match the marquee lustre of Ripley‘s Matt Damon, Gwynneth Paltrow and Jude Law, but they’re probably more star-powerish than The American Friend‘s Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper and Liza Kreuzer and yet that German-made film had a good deal more noirish intrigue and stylish pizazz than Hamimi’s so go figure.
But I don’t want to put January down. It’s not a problem, entirely decent, worth catching, not a burn, etc. It’s not an A-level enterprise, but that’s okay.
The title refers to the Roman God Janus, known as the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby of gates, doors, passages, endings and time. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. The Romans named the month of January in his honor.