‘The Two Faces of January’: A stunning triumph

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The psychological crime thriller, “The Two Faces of January,” depicts the evolving relationship between two shady con men. It is complicated by their rivalry for a woman, whom is married to one of them.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortenson) and his much younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are a handsome American couple, traveling through Europe, circa 1962. The couple is staying in five-star hotels, dining in the best restaurants, and spending money liberally.

They’re no schlubs. Despite the oppressive heat, Chester wears an immaculate white suit, complemented by a dark tie and straw hat. Colette is tastefully outfitted in a white dress, hat, gloves, pearls, and purse ensemble. Are their color-coordinated outfits an ironic commentary on their ethics?

Now, they have reached Athens, where they are visiting the ruins of the Acropolis. For some reason, Chester seems to be perpetually looking over his shoulder. What is unnerving him?

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie "The Two Faces in January" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrRHmhIDfjg

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “The Two Faces in January” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrRHmhIDfjg

Chester’s attention is captured by a handsome young tour guide, who is squiring young debutantes . Chester notices that the man is scamming the tourists by trading their dollars for a less than equivalent amount of drachmas as they purchase local wares. After the exchange of furtive glances, Chester and Colette eventually meet the man, Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac from “Inside Llewyn Davis). Chester invites Rydal to join them for dinner.

Over dinner and drinks, Rydal explains that he is a Yale alum, whose dad is an Ivy League professor. Rydal has fled to Europe, in order to escape the overbearing influence of his recently deceased father. Is Rydal’s account true?

What about Chester’s cover story? He has cultivated the air of a W.A.S.P. patrician, who is the product of private prep schools and prestigious universities. In reality, his father was a lowly truck driver. Chester claims to be an investment banker. However, it seems that, like Rydal, he is also a scam artist. Chester, if that’s his real name, has sold shares in non-existent mines to various investors. Now, he’s on the lam with his ill-gotten lucre.

Following dinner, Chester and Colette return to their upscale hotel room. Their amorous activities are interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s a no-nonsense  private eye, Paul Vittorio (David Warshofsky). He’s been dispatched by some mob members, who are intent upon recovering the money that Chester has swindled from them.

When Chester proves uncooperative, the collection agent pulls a gun. In the ensuing struggle, the gun goes off, killing Vittorio. Chester convinces Colette, who was in the next room, that the man has merely been knocked unconscious. Meanwhile, Rydal heads back to the hotel, intent upon returning a newly purchased bracelet to Colette. Rydal interrupts Chester as he is dragging the victim’s body back to the latter’s hotel room. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is drunk and enlists his assistance.

Eventually, Colette and Rydal realize that Chester has killed the private eye. Now, they are accomplices to the crime. The film follows the trio as they flee to Turkey. Will Rydal help his romantic rival, Chester, procure a fake passport and escape with Colette?

The writing of Patricia Highsmith has long been a rich source for movie adaptation. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was adapted by Raymond  Chandler and became a classic Hitchcock film of the same name. It was later remade under the title, “Once You Kiss a Stranger.” Her novel, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was first filmed under the title, “Purple Noon” and later as the Matt Damon vehicle.

Highsmith’s novel. “The Two Faces of January” had previously turned into the German film, “Die zwei Gesicheter des January.”  For the past fifteen years, Iranian screenwriter, Hossein Amini (“Drive”), has aspired to direct his English language screenplay of the novel. Amini’s passion for the material is evident in the finished project, which marks his feature film directorial debut.

“The Two Faces of January” boasts remarkable production values from a notably international crew. The film is festooned with numerous arresting shots by Danish cinematographer, Marcel Zyskind (“The Road to Guantanamo”). A chase through the streets of Istanbul, will remind cinephiles of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.” The visual text is well-complemented by a score by Spanish composer, Alberto Iglesias (”The Constant Gardener,” “Talk To Her”), which is sonorous without ever becoming intrusive.

Aided by excellent casting and taut pacing, “The Two Faces of January” does a superb job of capturing the Oedipal nuances, dramatic tensions, and plot twists of its source novel. It is a stunning triumph.

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY  ***1/2 PG-13 (or some violence, language and smoking ) 96 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.




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