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With: Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky
Written by: Hossein Amini
Directed by: Hossein Amini
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, language and smoking
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/26/2014

The Two Faces of January (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tourist Trap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Author Patricia Highsmith's books have made some very good films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), Rene Clement's Purple Noon (1960), Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977), Claude Chabrol's The Cry of the Owl (1987), and Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game (2002). By far the most popular one, though, is Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), which is also the weakest of the batch. Now comes Hossein Amini's The Two Faces of January, which clearly comes closer to the Minghella film than to the others, probably for commercial reasons, but also likely because the late Minghella's estate was crucial in getting the movie made.

Thankfully Amini, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Wings of the Dove (1997) as well as the should-have-been nominated writer of Drive (2011) who makes his directorial debut here, has a much better sense of rhythm than Minghella, as well as a playful darkness that jibes with Highsmith's sensibilities.

The Two Faces of January has a stellar cast, rather than the popular pretty faces of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and begins in Greece. Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are an American couple on vacation in the early 1960s. Yet nothing is as it seems, as demonstrated by a visit to the Parthenon, where if you put your hat at one end, the subtle curve of the building makes it disappear if you step back far enough. Before long, they meet the acquaintance of a local tour guide, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who generally makes his living bilking the tourists by giving wrong values of currency. After a while, this trio generally seems to enjoy being in each other's company, notwithstanding the fact that Rydal is attracted to Colette.

Then, we find out a little more about Chester's work. He's also a con artist and several of his victims have hired a private eye (David Warshofsky) to find him. That encounter requires Chester and Colette to suddenly leave town. To complicate matters, Rydal, who has coincidentally shown up to return a lost item of jewelry to Colette, becomes their accomplice. The rest of the movie is more or less tense, drunken, and exhausting as the travelers hide out and wait for fake passports.

Amini takes several cues from Minghella as far as the deceptively sunny look of the film, plus some nice costumes and set design, as well as another Bernard Herrmann-esque score, but Amini is much more canny about characters and the way that they react to twists of fate. These characters are all not so nice, but they are all still interesting, and even likable at times. No final decision or ultimate label is stuck upon any of them. The performances are far more subtle here as well.

Apparently, many have taken offense at the movie's ending, which seems a little too upbeat, but I'm told it comes straight from the novel that way. (Imagine audiences wanting a non-happy ending!) It's part of the way Highsmith's characters were always subject to change. Not everything works out perfectly in the movie, but one of the characters has a chance to do something redemptive, and takes it, perhaps because, "why not?"

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