Skip to main content

The truth is, we’re joined at the hip.

The Two Faces of January
(2014)

(SPOILERS) From its solemn, haughty title down to its sun-drenched period trappings, The Two Faces of January has the veneer of a classy, classical, immaculately poised thriller. Patricia Highsmith’s novels have held lustre ever since Hitchcock made Strangers on a Train, but such a flawless and rewarding interpretation of her work has since been consistently elusive. Certainly, it wasn’t to be found in the vastly overrated – and probably best known of her novels – The Talented Mr Ripley. January feels like a picture arriving pre-prepared to be lauded – the word “elegant” will likely preface any given review – and there are many things about it that do deserve praise. Unfortunately, the one thing that doesn’t is the story itself; the expectation of a tense, twisty journey gradually way to the realisation that this slightest of tales has few surprises on the way to a rather inevitable destination.


A recurring feature of Highsmith’s work is the presence of non-traditional protagonists; often these are flawed, amoral anti-heroes and her particular skill is to encourage the reader to identify with their unbecoming behaviour. January is no exception, revolving around the uneasy tensions between three Americans in Greece. One, tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), has become a part of the landscape. Fluent in the language, he uses his edge to skim profits from those he intercedes for in deals (or even those who simply take him to dinner). We know he’s dodgy, if in a decidedly petty sense, from the first.


Less clearly motivated are well-presented couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst). The trio catches each other’s attention and before long Rydal is showing them around and skimming off them. When it becomes clear that Chester’s dubious activities put Rydal’s nickel-and-dime antics in the shade, events conspire and the latter becomes the couple’s only-partially witting aide and accomplice. They head for Crete, where Chester and Colette are due to take delivery of fake passports. This time together fosters the development of a highly fraught love triangle as Rydal and Colette become attracted to each other. Meanwhile the outwardly composed Chester reveals himself to be increasingly uncontrolled and excessive as he responds to the perceived threat of Rydal and the danger of losing his much younger wife.


The first half of Hussein Amini’s directorial debut is slippery and elusive. The simmering tensions and glowering looks keep the viewer guessing just where this will go. Unfortunately, Amini has no aces up his sleeve and there is insufficient plot to sustain the unsympathetic characters on their unravelling way. Part of the problem is that Mortensen has – as he frequently does – chosen well, but his is the only one of the three with sufficient substance. Chester is cool and calculated, with an innate knack for self-preservation, except when his “better” instincts fail him. He has Rydal made from their first meeting (“I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”), and is quite aware of Rydal taking his cut and having designs on his wife.


But Chester is no mastermind; his prior business affairs don’t sound as if he was engaging in an intentional scam (until he made off with the loot, that is) any more than killing the investigator was (he is clearly shocked by what he has done; taking life isn’t something he does everyday). Chester continually performs blunders, unable to keep a calm head and turning to the bottle when his world is threatened, yet he demands attention as he still manages to outwit others in desperate situations. He becomes a rounded character through the sum total of his flaws. We’re even unsure if he’s acting the tourist until we see him getting lost and increasingly ruffled by his inability to master his surroundings. Mortensen makes Chester’s shading consistently dangerous and intriguing; when we hear him casually invite Rydal to “come and have a drink and we’ll talk about it” we’re instantly struck by how he used the same words with the investigator. We can see and hear his cunning at work, yet all that befalls him could have been prevented if he was more cautious and considered.


Rydal, through no fault of Isaac, is more obscure. Initially it appears as if he will be the focus, and that we will see the McFarlands through his eyes (one of the most appealing aspects of the screenplay is the realisation that we’re being introduced to the couple in the middle of something; this tale doesn’t start with their meeting with Rydal), but Amini switches allegiance to Chester. Much is made of how the two are similar, but the ambiguity encouraged by the writer-director distances any insight into Rydal (he resists showing Rydal and Colette in flagrante or even in a clinch, so their rapport relies heavily on Chester’s point of view and his imaginings of what they are getting up to; even when Rydal tells him they had sex it could as easily be designed to extract an angry confession, more likely even).  Such diffidence can work to an extent, but we need to be engaged by why he is doing what he is doing, intrigued by his motivations. We’re unsure how deeply he cares about Colette, uncertain if he has limits to his potential for criminal behaviour (“I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a little larceny in your veins” says Chester), unclear if his entrapment of Chester is purely a result of being forced to co-operate with the police or a genuine desire to bring Chester to book. And we end up not much caring.


Chester’s dying confession seems to come out of the blue; a man making amends why? It seems intended to connect the running themes of the doubling between the two conmen announced by the title. The Roman god Janus (a rather peculiar choice given there is no Greek equivalent), hence January, is the god of transitions and change, able to see into both the past and the future, but the bearing on Highsmith’s tale is really in the loosest sense. The two faced god, two men with two faces each, one for everyone else and one for what is really lurking beneath. Rydal initially tells rich heiress Lauren (Daisy Bevan, daughter of the film’s producer Tim and Joely Richardson – so she has an acting dynasty’s blood in her veins) that Chester reminds him of his father, the father whose funeral he didn’t attend and whom he resents. We don’t know (like so much with Rydal) if this is merely a deflection because he really was eyeing up Colette, but it ties into Chester informing him how much alike they are and how one day he will realise how much like the elder swindler he is; Chester is the Janus who encounters his own past seeing into Rydal’s future.


The object of both their desires is also a little too remote. Dunst is strong, but her character has little to do other aside from reacting to the men around her; her role is too undercooked to sense that she has any real control or power over her men. It would be interesting to see the young trophy wife actually made something of in a film, but filmmakers often fall into the trap of making the part exactly what it appears to be. I’d like to say I was surprised by Colette’s exit, but the picture was already tending in that interior direction; with no clear external trajectory, its characters had to implode or suffocate each other.


This is one of those films where it’s difficult to put a finger on quite where, finally, it disappoints; January’s a slow burn character-driven affair that never quite clicks. There are several well-executed sequences during the second half (the confrontation in the ruins, the customs queue at the airport and subsequent fooling of Rydal, the street café meeting place, the final chase) but I was insufficiently engaged by these characters’ fates and, rather than spiralling ever more out of control, Amini settles on a more restrained touchdown.


Hussein Amini read January at university, and had wanted to make a film of it ever since. The intrinsic appeal eludes me, although I admit I’ve found Highsmith material very hit and miss as far as adaptations go (the Malkovich Ripley’s Game was a hit). It has the tone and range of a minor piece, which may be why it isn’t so well known. Some of Amini’s more fanciful allusions don’t bear much interrogation either, Theseus and the Minotaur in particular. Okay, there are a number of representations of labyrinths, and Rydal, like Theseus has lost his father, but the broader references to Ariadne (Colette) and the Minotaur (Chester) are vague enough to resist a coherent reading.


Amini’s screenwriting career has been mixed; Drive received much acclaim, but a substantial part of that arguably relates to what the director did with it. He was Oscar nominated for The Wings of the Dove, and his first few screenplays were adaptations. Next up is a Le Carré, but on January’s evidence I’m more impressed with the sure-footed classical style he brings as a director than his scripting talents. There’s an assuredness at work, a willingness to let the picture unfold in its own good time, and a keen awareness of the tensions and space between the characters.


The Two Faces of January is gorgeous to behold (courtesy of cinematographer Marcel Zyskind), and just for the travelogue value it’s worth experiencing. Unfortunately the need to fall back on such a comment illustrates that it is also somehow lacking; the inner tensions between its trio are unable sustain the film for its entire length, and it’s left to peter out rather than end boldly or confidently. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing Amini’s sophomore effort and I’m certain it will be every bit as elegant as this is.





Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.