Take a Drink: for every con, large or small
Take a Drink: for talk of World War II
Take a Drink: for cigarettes
Take a Drink: for myths
Take a Drink: for mentions of Isaac’s father
Do a Shot: for oh shit! twists
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The novels of Patricia Highsmith have been a Hollywood goldmine for over 60 years, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to three different, excellent Ripley films, to next year’s beastly-looking Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara-starring Carol. This year saw another quality member join their ranks.
Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Raccoon was a real winner
The Two Faces of January, like many Highsmith books, is about American expats in Europe who engage in crime and intrigue. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play a wealthy vacationing couple with a secret and Oscar Isaac is the small-time con artist tour guide who gets caught in their web after witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to. On the run, their dynamic unravels as Isaac gets closer to Dunst.
Highsmith was simply a master of the potboiler, and The Two Faces of January is a beautifully staged throwback to a time when the cerebral thriller reigned supreme. Drive writer Hossein Amini makes his directorial debut here, but you’d never guess it in a hundred years. He manages the pace and ever-ratcheting tension with a confident, assured hand,, and presides over an impeccably produced film in every way, from costuming to hair & makeup, production design, and Marcel Zyskind’s sun-kissed cinematography of highly photogenic locations in Greece, Crete, and Turkey.
Ah, the romance
Despite its handsome trappings and Amini’s strong control of the ever-increasing stakes, this is an actor’s showcase first and foremost, and in Mortensen, Isaac, and Dunst, Amini has one hell of a trio to work with. Dunst acquits herself well, bright and attractive, but with her own pain and purpose percolating under the surface, but this film’s Oedipal focus isn’t really on them as a group, but rather on Mortensen and Isaac’s gradually developing father/son one.
Both are clearly con-men of different degrees, but as the plot mechanics draw them closer against their will, the similarities between the coldy capable, intimidating Mortensen and Isaac’s resourceful small-timer become more and more clear, and their battle of wills becomes titanic. These are two actors at the top of their game, and their dynamic, in silence as much or even more than in speech, is electric.
The one element that doesn’t quite gel is the love triangle. I understand how Amini is going for the Oedipus parallel, but he picked the wrong actress to pull it off. Dunst is in no way believable as even a symbolic mother figure to Isaac, and really should’ve been given more to do in another vein (Daisy/Gatsby, mayhap?) to really sell the love triangle Amini’s so intent on.
The Two Faces of January is an elegant period thriller of the sort we don’t get too often anymore, and an excellent vehicle for some great performances.