"It’s a well-made film with stomach-punching acting"

It starts off like a GQ fashion editorial in Mad Men style, with the classy couple Chester and Collette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) promenading around the ruins of ancient Greece seemingly on holiday. They catch the attention of a charming American tour guide Rydal Keener (Oscar Issac) who in hope for the beautiful Collette, or a piece of Chester’s wealth, shows them around. The three of them soon become desperately intertwined as “The Two Faces of January” quickly turns ugly as we find out that Chester is on the run for swindling money and is being chased.

It’s a well-made film with stomach-punching acting, especially by Viggo Mortensen. But it’s not always very pleasurable to watch as these three neurotic characters dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole.

It is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, the screenwriter behind award-winning Drive (2011). He wrote the script based on a book by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley). It is something he had dreamt about doing for twenty years since he first read the book at university.

Viggo Mortensen shares Amini’s fascination for the author’s erratic personas.“Her characters are messy, the relationships are messy sometimes. It’s embarrassing to watch some things they do. I, as an actor, like the fact that all characters have moments where you’re kind of embarrassed for them. ‘Like, ehm, that’s not your best look!’” 

I found that while the characters unravelled, exposing daddy issues and class journeys, the film audience sat divided. The mature crowd, wallowing in the richness of the characters and drooling over a rugged Mortensen; the fashionistas wondering if a white suit would be too expensive to dry-clean, and the Hollywood film fans holding back a yawn and scratching their heads trying to figure out ‘who is the bad guy here and who is not?’.

Viggo Mortensen has said about the film: “It’s rare these days that it is quite subtle. What’s great about it is that when you see it a second time, you see even more things about the
characters and the complexity of their relationships. Most movies aren’t that way. When you see it the second time you start to see flaws. Here is the opposite.”

The Two Faces of January, set in 1962, has a style partly inspired by film noir, with many cutaways of running feet and scenes in dramatic candle light. But at times it also comes across as very naturalistic and the beauty of Istanbul and Crete speaks for itself. I thought the film noir elements were sometimes bordering on farcical. Chasing around dark tombes with a glowing red candle? The overuse, in my opinion, of detective hats. The many sequences of parallel editing - it works well in the Godfather - but is less impressive as a way to jazz up any mundane situation such as queueing up for border control.

I guess it’s a rule of thumb that if it takes two decades to get a script made into a movie, you’ve got the wrong story or you’re a persistent genius. The fear is that you might end up with a production slightly overworked, where the audience can’t possibly match your own delicate reading and appreciation of the film. Hossein Amini is lucky great actors got behind this film, and that they have made their fortunes elsewhere in the movie industry.

Because when you look at it commercially, even Highsmith struggled to get this book published. She was criticised by her editor saying: “A book can take two non-functional, neurotic characters; not three.”