Saturday, May 17, 2014

They don't make them like this any more: The Two Faces of January

Hossein Amini’s directorial debut (he is an Oscar nominated screenwriter) The Two Faces of January is gloriously old fashioned. It is not a movie; it is a picture. The Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) adaptation takes its cues from 1940s film noir, Hitchcock and particularly René Clément’s 1960 take on Ripley, Plein Soleil.

The year is 1962. Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, a shady American tour guide operating in Athens who spends his time hustling rich tourists and seducing pretty ones. He encounters and somewhat befriends a wealthy couple, Chester and Colette MacPharland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), who turn out to be even shadier than him. After the past catches up with them, they find themselves on the run from the law and Rydal steps in to help them.

The biggest pleasure in watching The Two Faces of January is the style. It is a very handsome film, and I’m not just talking about Viggo Mortensen here. The locations are stunning; it could easily have been financed by the Greek tourist board. The weather is relentlessly sunny and hot; not a single cloud is to be seen. The period setting adds glamour and class: cream suits, sunglasses, hats and cigarettes. Smoking was after all still cool in the sixties.

While the emphasis is on the style, there is just enough substance to keep it interesting. All three main characters are fascinatingly ambiguous. You are never quite sure what their motives are. Why does Rydal decide to help the MacPharlands? Is Colette in love with Rydal? What exactly are Chester’s intentions? The relationships between them change quicker and more often than a politician’s opinions, but the characters always feel real and believable. One minute they’re friends, the next Viggo sucker-punches Isaac. With the exception of a heavy-handed, unnecessary plotline about Rydal’s unloving father, the plot is tight and simple.

The Two Faces of January will hardly become a classic, but it is a solid, enjoyable throwback to a kind of filmmaking that doesn’t really exist these days, held together by three superb performances.

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