Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Two Faces of January’

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Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of January, opening in Berkeley on Oct. 10

I’ve never read any of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, but at some point I probably should. Highsmith’s writing has inspired a number of very fine cinematic adaptations, including Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1955), René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) and (more recently) Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). That’s an impressive track record, and it can’t all be down to the skill of the filmmakers.

Now comes The Two Faces of January, opening on Friday, Oct. 10 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. The film’s limited release pattern indicates distributor Magnolia Pictures doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the film’s box-office prospects, which is unfortunate, as it is – for the most part – a very well made little thriller.

Its title a not-so-veiled reference to Janus – the multi-faced Roman god of transitions – The Two Faces of January begins in 1962 Athens, where American expat Rydal Keener (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac) helps American visitors appreciate the beauties and marvels of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. A handsome smoothie with soulful eyes, Rydal uses his knowledge of Greek to supplement his fees by skimming from the gullible, deep-pocketed tourists who rely on him to exchange their dollars for drachmas.

Taking in the sights on their own terms are Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), a wealthy American couple spending some of Chester’s brokerage earnings on a well-deserved European vacation. Or so Colette believes: Chester has actually ripped off some well-connected folks back home, who’ve dispatched private investigator Paul Vittorio (David Warshowksy) to recover their money by any means necessary.


Shortly thereafter, Rydal makes common cause with the MacFarlands, attempting to help them out of their predicament while lining his pockets with a portion of Chester’s ill-gotten gains. Can they successfully flee the country and escape their pursuers before Rydal milks them for all they’re worth?

I’ll reveal no more of the plot, but rest assured it takes multiple fascinating twists and turns before the final reel. The Two Faces of January’s dénouement, however, is a total letdown, but perhaps that’s the fault of the source material and not of writer-director Hossein Amini.

This anticlimactic climax perhaps explains Magnolia’s decision not to give The Two Faces of January a wider release. It’s a shame, because in all other respects, this is a wonderfully entertaining – if decidedly old-fashioned – film. Both Mortensen and Dunst are excellent, and Isaac definitely has the look of a star in the making (or at least of a Mark Ruffalo, no bad thing in itself).

Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography is also a highlight. Reminding yours truly of Jules Dassin’s little seen 1966 gem 10:30 PM Summer, it’s at its best during a tense Cretan bus ride echoing the Moroccan journey lensed by Robert Burks for Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Never mind the letdown of The Two Faces of January final ten minutes: the previous ninety are consistently compelling.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.


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