' Cinema Romantico: The Two Faces Of January

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Two Faces Of January

If nothing else, "Two Face Of January" is an exemplary Greek travelogue, opening at the beatific ruins of the Acropolis and exploring Athens before crossing the blue water of the Mediterranean for Crete where it meanders up the coastline. Even a scene that finds our desperate trio forced to sleep outdoors on stone benches seems like a warmer night's sleep than the warmth of our own beds. That warmth purposely stands in stark contrast to the characters operating within it. They are con-men, well-heeled and completely cool, but also motivationally suspect and inherently unlikable.


Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Athens in 1962. His occupation, of course, is a convenient conduit to pontifications on ancient gods to draw parallels to his forthcoming plight, but it's also believable in that it provides the perfect platform to bilk comely female tourists of their drachma. He has just lost his father but actively chosen to avoid the funeral, and when he sees an American, Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen), who inexplicably resembles his old man, it provides an excuse to be drawn into an inevitably nefarious orbit.

Indeed, the manner in which Chester and his trophy wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) reconnoiter Rydal before invoking his accord betrays their status as no mere couple on a honeymoon. He is a swindler, big-time, having defrauded massively moneyed peoples back in the States. And when a P.I. tracks them down, things happen, the P.I. winds up dead and Rydal comes to their aid, helping them to hide out while they wait for fake passports.

While the film has bothersome elements archetypal to the thriller – walking into a hallway at EXACTLY the wrong moment to see the guy propping up a dead body, news reports telling a character EXACTLY what he needs to know – "Two Face Of January", which is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, is more interested in the psychological than the pulse-pounding. In a deft performance, Mortensen opens with the air of a card shark setting you up for the big steal only to slowly morph into a rich man as basket case, and his crack up becomes the film’s focus as opposed to any gotcha! twist.

The film is set in 1962 but it might as well be 2008 with Chester in a Bear Stearns windbreaker rather than a swag tweed suit, refusing penance and attempting to avoid punishment. He’s not a man running from his past, he’s running from his present. He’s running from who he is, and not getting far, no matter how remote the locales. He, however, seems less equipped to deal with his self-made fate than Colette. Her character may be problematically reduced to an object metaphorically dueled over by the two males, as well as a narrative excuse for Rydal to stay in their company even when their secrets are exposed, but Dunst wrings quiet humanity out of willful acceptance. She’s not so much standing by her man as standing with him, aware of the choice she’s made and the consequences that come with it, a captain who understands she must go down with the ship because her mistakes led directly to the sinking.

The wild card is Rydal. Although the idea of Chester being a non-traditional father figure to him is only sporadic, it still feels overdone, not rising organically from the narrative but dropped in with a heavy hand, desperate to trigger his catharsis. Simultaneously, it is canceled out by the implied notion that he is also attracted to Colette. In the end, he simply seems attracted to the high life. There is no confidence trick in "The Two Faces Of January", only beautiful people in beautiful clothes in beautiful places. Who among us can resist?

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