Movie a Day Blog has become a great admirer of the late British mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith. An eccentric individual in her own right, her books have inspired several outstanding films, most notably STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999).
So my interest was piqued by a new Highsmith adaptation I had not heard about, THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY (2014, Amazon Instant). It features an uncommonly good cast, a Highsmith plot thick with deceit and mixed motives, and a reasonably good job of direction by screenwriter Hossein Amini.
He’s making his feature directing debut after writing high style BBC literary adaptations and lowbrow Hollywood commercial fare such as SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), (although, to his credit, he did write the script for DRIVE (2011)).
This Highsmith is not up to the cruelly clever plot machinations of the RIPLEY novels, and Amini, who also wrote the adaptation, lets the twists and turns get the best of him as the story unwinds.
But it’s a pleasure to see Viggo Mortensen in a 1950s bespoken white suit, and Oscar Isaac, who plays both his victim and his nemesis, is as surprising as always. Isaac has never been boring in anything, not even the Coen Brothers’ unsuccessful INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), and he is startling in TWO FACES in unexpected and chilling ways.
There’s a real contest as to who is the bigger con artist between Mortensen’s and Isaac’s characters, but it’s not always a pleasant struggle to watch, in typical Highsmith fashion. Men fascinate her and she writes male characters with unbelievable insight and depth, but that doesn’t mean she likes them, and neither do we.
Highsmith’s weakness as a writer also bedevils all the movie versions of her work: her female characters are one-note, superficial and barely worth her scorn. They have typically been beefed up in the films to attract better actresses, and Kirsten Dunst, looking a decade older than she did in MELANCHOLIA (2011) is given little to do, and not enough screen time to do anything with it.
The decline of Mortensen’s character is steep and disturbing, but two-thirds of the way through TWO FACES’ trim 96-minute running time, we tend to give up on him. Amini can’t escape the exacting price Highsmith extorts from her characters, leaving them and us in an decidedly unsettled state of mind. David Warshofsky is excellent in a memorable short role as the man who sets the plot in motion, and pays the price. It was also nice to see Daisy Bevan, the daughter of the film’s producer Tim Bevan and the actress Jolie Richardson, with a nice role in which she acquitted herself easily.
It’s hard to say more about THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY without divulging the plot twists, and I’ve probably given away more than I should have. This is an entertaining thriller without the cleverness and gravitas of a Hitchcock adaptation, the one director with whom Highsmith met her match. His like will not be seen again, at least not in the person of Hossein Amini.