Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Two Faces of January (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Two Faces of January

The existential yet exuberant novel "The Two Faces of January" by Patricia Highsmith is now a film by Iranian director Hossein Amini (screenwriter, The Wings of the Dove).

The narrative which is set in Greece, concerns a poetic but obsessive drifter Rydal and his compulsion with a bourgeoise stock scammer named  Chester, who looks like Rydal's recently deceased dad.

In the book, Rydal is entranced by Chester's wife Colette, too, who also happens to have a striking resemblance to Rydal's cousin Agnes, who was romantically involved with him.

Rydal is played by the intense Oscar Isaac, and Chester is inhabited by a teeth-grinding Viggo Mortensen.

While the film adaptation tones down the outlandish desperation of Chester and doesn't mention the Colette / Agnes comparisons together with Rydal's guilt regarding the  bad romance, it succeeds as an acidic noir idyll with the flavor of  "Strangers on a Train" (another Highsmith book and a Hitchcock classic).

Mortensen is well outfitted as the shifty and tense man who is constantly looking out for the police as he goes from one tourist attraction to the next. He is an appropriate white linen shark. As Chester goes to his ritzy hotel in Athens, after a day of sightseeing, he is startled, interrupted in his boozy foreplay by an insistent knock.

A detective waits patiently.

Chester tries to stall him but the investigator doesn't fall for small talk and aims his gun. With deliberate force, Chester kicks the man to the floor and knocks his head into the hard tile.  Chester drags the body out to the hall, but he can't hold the man and loses his grip.

Rydal appears. Chester asks for help, insisting the man is drunk and Rydal readily consents.  Chester quickly asks Rydal to stay with him and a bland Colette (Kirsten Dunst), to act as an interpreter. Chester becomes edgy though feeling that the young pensive man with the dark eyes will turn him in and leave with his wife.

In the role, Mortensen is satisfactorily petty and selfish, although some of the nouveau riche behaviors of the original Chester character are omitted. Oscar Isaac's Rydal is more dishonest and calculating and less spontaneous in this film adaptation. At the start, we see Rydal shortchanging a gullible girl.

Despite these differences from the novel, the film capably weaves some co-dependent tension with Chester and Rydal oscillating between a kind of understanding and a volatile hatred for one another. This pairing is similar to the previous mentioned Hitchcock work with the effete but psychotic Bruno (Robert Walker becoming drawn to the young, dashing tennis star, Guy (Farley Granger).

The best scenes here are the ones in which Viggo Mortensen tries to ignore his sociopathic acts and become a kind of smarmy counselor to Rydal as the young man stares with a steely concentration, alternately seeming dead and wistful in the manner of a David Cronenberg  film.

The locations are fittingly midnight blue and sweeping, crisply brilliant and as ominously dim as one might expect from a Highsmith thriller. Every character is attired well, displaying many a fedora hat and suit as linear as a Parthenon column.

Although the film dispenses with most of the book's darkly comic overtones, "The Two Faces of January" is another handsome addition to the films made from Patricia Highsmith's novels. By the second half especially, the passive aggressive noose tightens, and the young Rydal realizes that he is attracted to  this wincing, self absorbed man (out of habit and guilt) just as much as he is repelled by him.

Write Ian at

No comments: