The Two Faces of January is another of Patricia Highsmith‘s novels to reach the screen. Following the footsteps of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Strangers On a Train (1951) among a list of a more than a few, this one relates to TTMR in that we have a killing, and then, people on the run. The difference is that Viggo Mortensen‘s Chester MacFarland could almost be considered ‘normal’ for the first twenty minutes or so, when events change our perspective of him, whereas Matt Damon‘s Tom Ripley was clearly a sociopath.
Directed by Hossein Amini who also adapted the 1964 Highsmith novel of the same name, we begin at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Chester MacFarland and his Mrs Colette MacFarland, played by Kirsten Dunst, appear to be a pair well-heeled American tourists on holiday in Greece.
We’ll soon meet Oscar Isaac, playing an ex-pat tour guide called Rydal. Immediately we see that Rydal is not just a tour guide, he’s also a petty grifter, who is not above cheating a young woman with a student group in Athens on a currency exchange, as well as padding the price of a bracelet that Colette liked in a bazaar with the ready acceptance by the Greek merchant.
Soon there’s a foursome out for dinner, Rydal and the girl, and the MacFarlands. It’s a standard dinner, everyone feeling jovial, and if anything, Chester consumed a few too many ouzos, a popular Greek drink. Having one-too-many would become a repeated motif for Chester. They all shared a cab ride back to the MacFarland’s hotel where Rydal dropped the MacFarland’s off.
Upon discovering that Colette had apparently not noticed that the bracelet, purchased earlier, had slipped off her wrist in the cab, Rydal, finding it, quickly shed the girl, and headed back to the hotel.
While this was going on, a man appeared at the hotel room of the MacFarlands, and this is when we got the low-down on Chester MacFarland aka Mr. Dunleavy. Chester was apparently both more and less than we thought. A scuffle ensues, a gun is pulled out, and just as Rydal arrives on the floor, there’s Chester dealing with the getting the body dragged back to the stranger’s hotel room.
Fortunately, Rydal agrees to help, apparently buying into the fact that Chester told him – that the guy had consumed one too many, and he was just getting the guy back to his hotel room.
Chester tells Colette that they have to leave the hotel at once, and there’s Rydal along to help them out. It’s complicated because their passports are in the hotel’s safe. So they head for a less formal hotel, that would be willing to give them rooms sans passports.
From there a deal is struck with a forger, again thanks to Rydal, and soon we are off to Crete, then later, Istanbul in Turkey.
That’s your set up. Seemed like the film would have a lot going for it, Set in 1962, this was before mobile phones, computers, and strict border crossings along with a top-notch cast, and set in exotic and intriguing locations, so expectations were high. Highsmith had a worthy track record, and this film, at least from the trailer, gave off a strong vibe of being Hitchcock-like.
But this film is at best, third-rate Hitchcock and only second-rate Highsmith. Mortensen, Dunst, and Isaacs are all more than capable, and do well, but the Amini screenplay lacks any sizzle or pop. The first third of the film, to set everything in motion is straightforward and completely lacking in any distinctive style. Well, that’s not including the stylish clothing on the American couple. Mortensen’s MacFarland strides about in a 3 piece suit, a tie, and dark sunglasses beneath the brim of his hat. Mrs. MacFarland wears a dress, a sun bonnet, jewelry, and even carries her gloves with her. That’s how American’s looked when they traveled back then. Not so much these days, with the prevalence of flying everywhere.
While every one was out under the bright Greek sun, everything looked good, but once indoors, all the luster was lost.
The middle of the film finds us in Crete. Nothing too much happens, at least that I’m willing to describe here, except that Chester’s paranoia about Rydal and Colette increases. Nothing happened between Colette and Rydal,that we can tell, although Chester wants to believe only the worst about his wife and the tour guide.
The last third, with their arrival in Istanbul, amps up the excitement to a degree, but the action just isn’t particularly well executed.
I’m coming in with a two-point seven five out of five, and am NOT recommending this film. It isn’t inherently bad, rather with this cast, it did not seem unrealistic to have expected more. If you wanted to get a good look at Athens or Istanbul, try a travel DVD, as you won’t get it in this film.
While you will go in to see this with the expectation of it being an attractive thriller – sadly, the film is neither attractive nor thrilling.
One thought on “The Two Faces of January”
Ah that’s a shame! I’m a big fan of the three leads, especially Dunst.