The Two Faces of January

There’s a nice moment in The Two Faces of January when, after his character has suffered a dramatic downturn, Viggo Mortensen appears in close-up. As pursued conman Chester MacFarland muses on his sorry situation in the cold morning light, Mortensen’s face looks dried-out, ashen, drained to the point of looking almost mummified. Since Mortensen appeared (very amusingly) as the William Burroughs figure in Walter Salles’s so-so On the Road, let’s invoke a Burroughsian idea here and say that this particular image is what you might call a “naked lunch” shot—it shows the moment at which all pretence is dropped, and the character is faced with the terrible truth of what’s on the end of his fork.

Mortensen doesn’t always peel away the shell of his characters quite so dramatically. The actor is generally famed for his enigmatic qualities, for his ability to play people who give away little of themselves, and whose inner nature eventually appears despite their efforts to conceal all. Most famously: the small-town diner proprietor whose gentle composure hides an ex-killer in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

The actor’s sense of adventure has recently led him to sign up for films in which his characters’ enigmatic nature becomes part of a wider picture—merging with the geography, as it were. This year alone, the indefatigable polyglot has made two existential landscape dramas: Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (speaking Danish and Spanish), and David Oelhoffen’s Algerian war drama Far From Men, a sort of Northern African Western (French, Spanish, and Arabic).

Two Faces of January Viggo Mortensen

Mortensen’s natural penchant for Gary Cooper–like taciturnity served those two films well. But in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January, we see something different of him—something closer to the wry urbanity of his Freud in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. As a suave, bogus adventurer in this early-Sixties-set Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Mortensen contrives a world-weary knowingness that at first suggests an American of the era attempting to channel George Sanders. Then the mask falls away to reveal the character’s coldness, emptiness, and amorality, and Mortensen’s lean, lived-in features suggest the lizard within the lounge lizard.

The Two Faces of January is an elegant film, willfully anachronistic in its fuss-free clarity. Apart from the obvious echoes that come when a film derives from Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, the various takes on Ripley), it also recalls those European-set cosmopolitan thrillers of the Fifties and Sixties—The Man Who Knew Too Much, Charade, Topkapi—that responded to the rise in postwar tourism. These films were often about the thought that Americans might be in peril venturing into the company of unknowable foreigners—but the Highsmith variation was that they were never in so much danger as they were from other Americans.

Starting in Athens in 1962, Amini’s film sets up its appearances-are-deceptive premise with bracing concision. Oscar Isaac—very good here, and somehow younger and nervier than we’ve seen him—plays Rydal, an American expat. We first see him showing a phalanx of admiring female tourists around the Parthenon; then he’s dining out with one, expertly working the dollars-to-drachmas short-change con on her. But he’s spotted by an imposing duo of apparitions in white and cream—a young woman named Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and her older husband, Chester (Mortensen). They exude grace and the scent of old money, but they’re phonies too: a hostile detective turns up at their hotel, hired by angry punters whom Chester has conned out of vast amounts of money (some of which he keeps in rolls in his suitcase, along with his Penguin copy of The Iliad).

Two Faces of January

Meanwhile, Rydal has conceived the hoots for Colette, and she seems to be sizing him up too—possibly with the tacit approval of Chester, even though he later crackles with possessive jealousy. Who knows exactly what’s going on between these three people? Is it just that Chester reminds Rydal of the archeologist dad he seems to despise? Or is there also have an obscure sexual glimmer between the two men (it’s been known in Highsmith stories)?

One way or another, it’s clear that these three people shouldn’t be spending any time together—and that they’ll soon become inseparable. Rydal finds himself helping the now fugitive couple out of Athens and into temporary hiding on Crete. As the landscape around the trio begins to expand, to become more panoramically sun-scorched, the travelers’ circumstances shrink—from five-star hotel rooms to roughing it on benches, to days dragging their cases along dusty roads near Knossos.

Best known as the screenwriter of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, Hossein Amini makes his directing debut here with a project originally developed at Mirage (it carries a dedication to Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack), and inevitably the film carries a reminder of the former’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. It might not have the same swagger, but the spareness of its conception is compelling in a different way: it starts by promising escapism and glamour, then scales down, getting grittier and grubbier, ever more concentrated and claustrophobic, until you genuinely feel that its characters have nowhere to go until their story implodes.

Two Faces of January

Apart from Alberto Iglesias’s score, which piles on the Hermannisms shamelessly, January is Hitchcockian in certain time-honored ways—notably the kiss early on that’s interrupted by an unwelcome rap at the door. There’s also a tense moment at a port, in which police seem bound to find our fugitives in the crowd, but question an innocent instead (nice peppery touch in the subtitles: “Did you visit Knossos?” “Why would I go there? I was born in Crete”). Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, has a sensitivity to what his characters do and don’t understand in different languages. Hearing a Greek radio broadcast, Chester doesn’t follow a word, but guesses the gist, and asks Rydal: “Who are they describing—you or me?”

It’s a cleanly executed film, with DP Marcel Zyskind retuning the initial sunny opulence into something harsher and more stifling. And the echoes of Sixties genre play out engagingly—by the time the action moves to Turkey and a chase through Istanbul’s Old Market, the period feel is so palpable that you expect Akim Tamiroff to step out from between the hanging carpets.

The Two Faces of January isn’t a revelation, just a classy, consistently engaging piece of work in a defiantly old-fashioned vein. There is something odd about it, though—I’m not sure whether this is more disappointing or perplexing—and that’s the oddly nebulous part played by Dunst. First seen as a shimmering vision in pale lemon, she seems to have stepped into the ready-to-wear Hitchcock-blonde role, but her Colette never quite congeals around that archetype. She’s strangely elusive: we know that she’s complicit in Chester’s dealings but we never quite know how she feels about them, nor how much she reciprocates Rydal’s attentions (Amini cuts away just as they seem about to kiss, and we’re left wondering, with Chester, exactly what has happened, beyond the lipstick traces he finds on a glass).

Two Faces of January

But Colette’s haziness is part of the intriguing itch that this film provokes. We don’t quite know who she is, but we know she’s cracking up just as much as her husband. She can be a hoot—she does a cross-eyed routine to amuse the boys—but sitting alone on a bus, she looks weary, puffy-eyed, broken.

The reason for her elusiveness is partly because she’s there to demarcate the battleground between the two men. But it’s also to do with Dunst herself. Embodying slightly glassy chic, as she does here, is something different for an actress who has tended to be seen as the embodiment of gauche exuberance, even when (especially when) her character is cracking up in the face of Doomsday, as in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. But if you don’t normally think of Dunst being spiky or troubling, remember that the part that made her famous as a child is possibly the most perverse female role ever seen in a mainstream movie, a Victorian doll of an undead moppet in Interview with the Vampire.

There’s none of that perversity here, but something differently intriguing—the sight of a performer who has reached a certain peak of maturity and elegance, and who is now adding a touch of roughness to her palette. The epitome of globe-trotting glamour when first encountered, Colette starts to reveal a sour crassness, a hidebound vulgarity, as when Chester mocks her reluctance to eat shellfish in Greece, even if they are straight from the sea. She goes bratty on him, her voice taking on a harsh Brooklyn edge, and for the first time, you can imagine Dunst a little older, playing it blowsy—being brilliant at what you might call Shelley Winters roles. Or, seeing Colette weary and washed-out on the bus, you can imagine Dunst as a Hitchcock woman of the less obvious sort: it’s not such a stretch to see her as the coolly tailored fashion plate, but here you begin to detect the Barbara Bel Geddes in her, which is a more unexpected proposition.