Patricia Highsmith’s work captures key moments in the social history of America. In particular, her novels of American expatriates in Europe, conjure a twisted, mid 20th-century vision of Henry James’ nouveau riche Americans on the make. As grifters and drifters take advantage of commercial travel and trade on the mystique of the Yank in post-World-War-II Europe, she zeroes in on Americans’ particular genius for reinvention, and the grasping for success that drives it. Writer and first-time director Hossein Amini, along with talented cinematographer Marcel Syskind, capture all this and more in their elegant adaptation of Highsmith’s 1964 novel, The Two Faces of January.
Here the Americans are Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen), a military veteran, his young wife, Collette (Kristen Dunst), and law school graduate Rydal (Oscar Isaac), one of the never-had-it-so good post-war generation, who lives casually along the edges of legality as a tour guide to the gullible. Dunst’s role is, alas, standard femme fatale stuff, as Collette intimates to the younger man that her taste for fun could easily shade into infidelity, and snaps at her husband when their grand tour falls apart in the wake of an accidental death. But both McFarland and Rydal show ambiguity and depth from their first, quasi-sexual exchange of glances on the Acropolis at the beginning of the film.
Are they compatriots recognizing each other in a foreign country? Is Rydal envious of McFarland’s wealth and wife, and McFarland wary of the youth and vitality he cannot recapture? Or do they mutually size each other up as potential marks or rivals? These and other questions remain unanswered, their relationship as much a matter of body language and shot framing as it is of dialogue. That is, until it dawns on the viewer that the central question of the movie has shifted from the mundane power struggle between young and old, husband and potential lover, to the much more complex issue of whether these Americans abroad are capable of or even deserving of redemption.
As Chester strengthens his hold on the bottle and loses his grip on his wife, he morphs from panicked tourist to granite-eyed survivor. Inexorably, Chester sheds his cynical carapace of acquiescence to reveal a core of vital self-preservation. At the same time, Isaac’s Rydal moves in the opposite direction. He never loses the affectless silkiness of the young who have yet to confront their own mortality, even when he almost dies, but in the second half of the movie, he insinuates a feral energy into his performance. When the two disembark from the ferry back to Athens, each capable of destroying the other’s life, the transformations are complete: they might line up meekly with the rest of the passengers, but each pulses with virulent determination to survive at all costs.
Much of the pleasure in Two Faces of January emerges from the restrained, expressive cinematography of Danish-born director of photography, Marcel Syskind. From the classical creams and taupes of the opening scenes in the Parthenon and Athens through the sunburned, shadeless interior of Crete to the hyper-stylized blues and bronzes of nighttime Istanbul, Syskind’s palette melds with emotional states. In the same vein, his control of light and shadow in capturing his actors in different moods lifts the movie from clever thriller to subtle psychological study. When McFarland wakes from an uncomfortable night on the beach, the bluish pallor of the scene accentuates his wordless reassessment of the situation in which he finds himself. After a short walk, he returns in the sun, light-heartedly bearing a “Greek doughnut,” for his wife’s breakfast, apparently as tolerant of the ménage à trois as before. But the audience has seen what the other characters have not: his neediness is now hidden beneath only the lightest of masks.
Despite all their talents, neither Amini nor Syskind handle action well. For most of the movie, that doesn’t matter, as they calibrate psychological and emotional shifts with a knowing precision. But all subtlety falls away in the closing scenes, as every cliché of noir pursuit pops onto the screen, and each sequence seems to last at least twice as long as necessary. The denouement is so prolonged that its potential for closure fizzles and dies on the screen long before Chester or Rydal reaches the end of his story.