When it comes to literary depictions of sinister amorality, there are few better exponents than the late Patricia Highsmith. Themes of avarice, criminality, latent homosexuality and antiheroism — if not outright villainy — pepper her refined, often cruelly resolved, novels.
Best known for her ‘Ripliad’, a series of stories centred on the cunning protagonist Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s universe is both gloomy and often marked by ostensible elegance and luxury. Ripley was a calculating con artist, coldly pursuing the opulence, power and influence in no way owed to him. He was birthed from the darkness embraced so readily by his creator. Matt Damon’s murderously conniving, emotionally ambiguous performance was especially chilling in Anthony Minghella’s masterful The Talented Mr Ripley, an adaptation which rooted Highsmith’s horrifying creation firmly in the modern zeitgeist.
The world of Ripley is that of the beautiful Mediterranean climes so attractive to the well-heeled American ex-pats — compatriots, of course — who constitute his prey. Indeed, The Two Faces of January plays out under the same azure skies of southern Europe. Based on Highsmith’s 1964 book, Hossein Amini’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot, genuinely gripping psychological thriller which mines the same cringe-inducing tension between courtesy and repulsion that rendered Minghella’s dramatic study of insincerity so fascinating. While the characters here are less horrifying than the parasitic Ripley, and the feckless Dickie Greenleaf, they are just as complex.
Opening in 1962, on the bustling steps of the Parthenon, January introduces Rydal Keener, an urbane multilingual American wastrel who makes his living as a tour guide, gently exploiting college girls and creaming commissions from wealthy, clueless visitors to his Athenian patch. Fresh off his weighty turn in the Coens’ stunning Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac imbues Rydal with a fascinating mix of shiftiness and likeability. On the one hand, he is clearly an opportunistic dandy, drifting from scam to scam and fleeing personal demons – a difficult home life in the US is hinted at throughout — on the other, Isaac skilfully suggests that Rydal is genuinely layered. Financial motivations aside, there is much to consider behind his faintly mournful eyes.
From the moment his attention is captured by wealthy New York couple Chester and Colette MacFarland, Rydal’s fate becomes somewhat more tenuous. The MacFarlands should be the perfect mark: malleable, gullible, loaded. Unfortunately for Rydal, his street wisdom is not enough to save him from ensnarement in their secretive travails. Played with sophistication by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, the duo are not exactly Bonnie and Clyde but appearances are increasingly deceptive. Ironically, Rydal, for all his lightweight trickery, emerges as the film’s least obscure individual.
Witness to the aftermath of unintended violence, he spots an opening for a quick profit, yet is also vaguely bewitched by Colette. Kirsten Dunst is an increasingly serious, eclectic performer and her portrayal here is many things: lovely, subtle, loyal and tragic. At her side, Mortensen’s is a towering presence. While this handsome swindler, veering from genial and wise to brutally pragmatic, may be out of his comfort zone, he is not particularly out of his depth. Like Ripley, he is resourceful; less of a chameleon, perhaps, but possessed of a talent for survival.
Thrown together, voluntarily at first, Rydal and the MacFarlands exchange pleasantries and superficial affection. The bonhomie, however, lasts only as long as an evening meal. From that point on, an air of quiet awkwardness is prevalent. These people, in truth, have only their passports in common, and even those are false.
It is here that the comparisons with Highsmith’s earlier material seems most apposite. Granted, there is no moment to rival Greenleaf’s horrifying, toe-curling realisation that Ripley’s suffocating companionship represents more than an irritating obsession. Yet, as Rydal is sucked deeper into the bog, as his life and liberty are jeopardised, he appears unable to avert the inevitable.
In recognising the thematic tropes which underpin the genre, Amini, working from his own script, has excelled in producing a feature to rival Minghella’s wonderful vision. The British director is now suitably recovered from the ignominy of being responsible for penning last year’s Keanu Reeves horror show, 47 Ronin. Instead, he shows off the panache which spurred him to write 2011’s Drive. January and Drive, admittedly, share little DNA beyond their lonely, placeless leading men but Amini has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of pivoting from the latter’s stylishly indulgent, though knowingly empty, neo-noir to something infinitely more rugged.
Hitchcock echoes through the encroaching paranoia as Rydal, Colette and Chester slope off into the arid Cretan outback and Amini ably harnesses the duality that informs it all. As Janus, the Roman God of transitions from which the eponymous month takes its name, observed the cosmos with two faces, so too does the film rely on the dangers of opposing viewpoints, whether deliberate or otherwise. Wires are crossed, situations misunderstood and identities shed. By the finale, the truth is the most elusive thing of all.
‘There’s a surprise around every corner,’ says Chester, sagely. The summer’s first great film is surely one of them.