A firm lesson in suspense from Houssien Amini with a plot that continues to thicken.
The film-makers behind The Two Faces of January, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, have done a superb job at keeping it in line with The Talented Mr Ripley, also a novel by Highsmith. The sallow palette that infuses the clothes, porticoes and columns creates such a rich picture that it would be watchable even without dialogue. One can’t but hope that another of Highsmith’s tales chronicling foreigners and their dangers abroad might get the big screen treatment rounding off what could be an impressive, yet unintended, trilogy.
There is little to fault with the Two faces. Set in 1962, with the war still relatively fresh in people’s minds, Chester and his wife Colette seem like your atypical couple enjoying a trip overseas. The fact that he’s wealthy and she’s significantly younger is no longer a strange convention to those of us in the 21st century. However, it is made believable by the fact these characters are played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst which also comes as a surprise. Dunst and Mortensen are probably the last two actors you’d expect to be traipsing about the Acropolis together, schmoozing in the cafes, yet they make it work. They quickly meet Rydal, an unofficial tour guide played by Oscar Isaac, who takes a keen interest in Colette and Chester, but mainly Colette, and offers to help them take in the sights while taking in their money. From the get go, Rydal comes off as a shifty guy whose penchant for ripping off tourists may hide more sinister traits. But as the all too brief introduction and first act gets thrown out the window, it becomes clear Chester and Colette are running from something in their past which catches up with them by the fifteen minute mark and Rydal may be the one being played. Isaac too seems a curious casting choice here. Often underplayed, but at least showing he has range through the likes of Balibo and Drive, he absolutely inhibits the role and gives Mortensen a good run for his money. It’s also worth noting there is almost no supporting cast in this film. Sure, there are a few bit part players like the young passport forger or Rydal’s tourist honey, but the driving force remains the acting triumvirate of Dunst, Mortensen and Isaac. And they more than deliver.
The remarkable camerawork gets up close and personal capturing every action no matter how small. Whether it’s Mortensen filling a shot glass with whisky, Dunst toying with the rim of her sunglasses or Isaac reaching for another musty European cigarillo, it’s all there in crystal clarity. The subtle shifts of focus work miraculously as well, to the point where it was hard to spot them for fear of missing a glance or sideways smile from one of the characters. Lighting also presents a swathe of techniques that only pile bricks of quality onto what is already an excellent story. Whether it’s the use of cigarette lighters in the catacombs of Knossos or the absence of a lamp in a hotel room, half lit faces wrought with tension steal every scene. The pale blue light bathing the characters after a night sleeping aloof outdoors gives an authenticity that is replicated over and over right down to Mortensen’s next morning stubble. Staying up all night to catch a bus the next morning, haggling to get a hotel room on short notice and the way tempers flare when three becomes a crowd, truly depict the benign horrors of overseas travel. Travelling with a murderer doesn’t help either.
The subconscious use of Greek mythology throughout is cleverly woven into the background as are various references and similarities to The Talented Mr Ripley ala people getting smashed over the head with heavy objects. A tense cat and mouse segment set in the labyrinthine ruins of Knossos sees Rydal pitted against Chester much the way Theseus faced down the Minotaur. Yet, a nail biting trip through immigration sees the two swindlers reluctantly working together and herein lies the two faces. The short clip where Chester and Rydal exit the ferry building and enter a cab encapsulates the film’s title in one swift move.
All these minor details are what keeps the audience on its toes in the sense that this film is very hard to second guess. Whenever events reach a breaking point, the protagonists have several choices but instead of going left or right, they take two steps back, kick the audience in the face and run up some stairs. And for that alone it is worth forgiving any trifling nuances.
Perhaps the only real letdown is the ending. For all the twists and turns, the final two scenes leave alot to be desired. It’s gratifying that the film does actually have an end and is not frustratingly ambiguous like others but from the preceding 90 minutes you would naturally be expecting a wink or a play out of left field to make you feel stupid for thinking it was over. But it never comes. Another ten minutes on the runtime could have been used to broaden the landscapes and earthy outdoor textures that come with Crete, Greece and Istanbul. These people are trekking through stunning locations but whilst scarpering down alleyways or sneaking into each other’s hotel rooms to read secret diaries, we only catch fleeting glimpses.
Two faces is like a giant knotted ball of string; there’s so much thrill to be had in the untangling.
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nicholas Brookland for www.pinkandsparkles.co.nz