Chester MacFarland is an American veteran with a considerably younger wife and a flexible conscience. He cuts a Don Draper-like figure, but Patricia Highsmith’s antihero Tom Ripley was created during the “Mad Men” era. The Greek coppers are no match for MacFarland, but an underachieving Ivy Leaguer will be a more formidable rival in Hossein Amini’s adaptation of “The Two Faces of January.”
Although he shares a clear kinship with the talented Mr. Ripley, MacFarland lacks his literary cousin’s long-term strategic thinking. After bilking his investors, including some rather “connected” gentlemen, with a Ponzi scheme, MacFarland has blithely embarked on a European tour with his young wife, Collette.
He seems to embody all the financial security and mature masculinity she always needed, yet something about their scruffy American tour guide Rydal Keener catches her eye. There is no question about Keener’s attraction to the trophy wife, but he is also struck by MacFarland’s eerie resemblance to his recently deceased father.
After a fateful night of sightseeing and boozing, MacFarland is confronted by a private detective representing his dodgy former clients. As the discussion gets heated, a struggle ensues, during which MacFarland accidentally kills the flatfoot.
In full panic mood, the swindler flees the hotel with Collette, leaving their passports behind. As international fugitives, they now engage Keener as their guide through the Southern European underworld. The circumstances have changed, but three is still an awkward crowd.
“January” is truly a lushly crafted film, luxuriating in its exotic locales and natty costumes. Veteran Dogme cinematographer Marcel Zyskind proves to be surprisingly adept at the sun-bathed noir look, capitalizing on all the striking Mediterranean backdrops. Production designer Michael Carlin and costumer Steven Noble also recreate the look and feel of 1962 in rich detail. In fact, it is a technically accomplished film in every respect.
Nonetheless, Highsmith’s slim novel still feels rather undernourished onscreen. Frankly, some of Amini’s deviations from the source material undermine the film’s dramatic credibility. Killing a police officer is serious business in any country, but it is hard to believe a Yankee with a suitcase full of cash couldn’t bribe his way out of trouble with a dead American P.I. in early 1960s Greece.
Regardless, Viggo Mortensen might have been born to play MacFarland, subtly hinting at all the neuroses the strong, silent antihero is bluffing over. Frankly, Mortensen’s powerfully understated performance and the tilt of Amini’s screenplay completely stack the deck against poor Keener and Collette, no matter who was filling their shoes. Indeed, it would be hard to understand why the younger man is so bewitched by the pale, dull Collette, but Oscar Isaac’s Keener is equally empty.
Fortunately, villains (and antiheroes) are always more important than their dullard antagonists in any film noir. Between the lovely sights and Mortensen’s smart, sophisticated work, “January” manages to offer enough to fans of literary thrillers looking for a fix. Recommended on balance, “The Two Faces of January” opens Friday, Sept. 26, in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Empire.
The Two Faces of January
Director: Hossein Amini
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Release date: Sept. 26
3 stars out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com