Patricia Highsmith's tales of Americans adrift in Europe, stumbling their way into unexpectedly existential, amoral situations, have long fascinated cinema, and have even originated some pretty good films. In many ways, a lot of it is due to the late writer's interest in the inherently cinematic duality of the doppelgänger, made visible in the identity theft at the heart of the Ripley series since The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The Two Faces of January, Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini's directorial debut, comes across as a sort of second-tier Talented Mr. Ripley set under the hot Summer sun of 1962 Greece, with the two male leads passing themselves off as what they are not and recognising kindred spirits in each other. Both are small-time con artists who have shed a skin and are yearning to live the dream they were promised but can't access other than through less legal ways.
These, however, are not exactly innocents abroad; rather people in a somewhat strange pilgrimage to exorcise demons or run from their pasts. Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen, channelling a young Ed Harris) is a World War II veteran living it large after eloping to Europe with the money entrusted to him by investors. Rydal Keener (a subdued, almost bland Oscar Isaac) is the son of a scholar tasting freedom from a life pre-ordained by a suffocating family and skimming off rich tourists who have more money they know what to do with.
A casual meet in Athens, expatriates enjoying time together, takes a turn for the worse when Rydal is unwitting witness to Chester's attempt to hide the dead body of a private detective sent on his trail. Escaping before the police cotton on to the crime, the fast friendship between the two men, having become a kind of surrogate father and son, deteriorates quickly as Chester realises Rydal is attracted to his wife, the lovely Colette (Kirsten Dunst making the most of a thankless, supporting role).
To his credit, Mr. Amini strives valiantly to maintain the wry, detached tone of Highsmith's novels, the almost casual way with which the tiniest detail mushrooms into a full-blown butterfly effect, her characters struggling with the unavoidable. But he is unable to give The Two Faces of January the added edge that would underline the hunger, the desperation for self-reinvention that is the engine for both Chester and Rydal's actions.
Instead, the director falls back on that standard British mode of elegant, understated period film making, the impeccable production and Marcel Zyskind's widescreen Kodachrome cinematography seemingly ripped out of a 1960s thriller - which might have been the whole point. But in so doing, The Two Faces of January becomes a tasteful, thoughtful, rather bloodless film - which is precisely what the writer was railing against with her disappointed characters.
There is, to be sure, nothing intrinsically wrong per se with this handsome production, well performed and well handled if with some anonymity. It's just that this kind of vacuum-sealed, well-appointed film somehow evades the exact existentialism that was at the heart of the novel: there's no weariness, just ennui.
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY
France, United Kingdom, USA 2013
Cast Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky
Director and screenwriter Hossein Amini; based on the novel The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith; cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Michael Carlin; costumes Steven Noble; editors Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris; producers Tom Sternberg, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; production companies Studiocanal, Working Title Films, Timnick Films and Mirage Enterprises in association with Anton Capital Entertainment
Screened November 27th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)