Out With The Old, In With The Old
Whether you’ve studied any of the Greek tragedies in your youth or not, the main crux of the majority of them once the fantastical/mythological veneer has eroded away, was that Man doesn’t really learn from his mistakes, and that people are rarely/never in control, despite all the facades (both actual and emotive) constructed to fool ourselves/each other. Indeed, such emotional shelters are but scaffolds of straw once the historical winds of reality and happen-stance come a blowing.
The basic tenet of ‘The Two Faces Of January’ 2014 directed by first time director Hossein Amini (however he wrote Drive amongst many others), is of a luxurious American couple in the guise of ‘business’ man Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortenson) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man) on vacation in 1962 Athens, Greece, and their meeting of a local tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) a fellow American abroad. Everything is pleasant, genteel, as is the want of the monied in their travels. You pay for the removal of hassle, where ease costs. Rydal finds himself in an apparent fortuitous position to provide such services, but at an ever increasing expense to all concerned.
Unfortunately like with the once radiance of the Acropolis, slowly cracks begin to appear, as if the Gods of Mount Olympus have returned, bored of the contrived social status dance between the parties, and the weave of their expensive wardrobe/personalities is slowly picked away, de-threaded and actual bare ugliness of human nature is exposed to the Greek sun. The catalyst for this protracted deity shredding is the arrival of an American detective who threatens to unravel this idyllic moment for the MacFarlands. Faith takes a nasty tumble, primal panicked survival instinct comes to the fore, and elaborate civility gives way to true dark human natures. A slow descent into Hades.
Based on the book of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote the ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’), it had taken host in Amini’s heart from his first reading of it many years ago. He mentioned in a London conference that he had written a script almost 20 years ago, but was only recently able to find the backing for it. His love for the piece remained faithful, but not overbearing so in that once the main cast were on board this holiday to Hell, it became a very rich and rewarding collaborative affair with the actors. Much time was spent developing, enhancing the various roles, fleshing them out and adapting them where need be, by the very folk who would be inhabiting said characters.
Viggo, Kirsten and Oscar glowed with delight when they each spoke of the support from Hossein in this process, which in turn is very apparent in the end result. Everyone is on top form, bringing depth, consideration and frail human nuances to their performances that is sadly lacking in the majority of fare in current times. When scripts and the relationship of actors to their content seems to be a very late afterthought only once the CGI budget has been approved/delivered, this really is a gem of a movie experience.
In the most positive ways, with only a short time into the movie, it resonates with the spirit, movement and palette of Hitchcock. That may sound dated, but it is far from it. It is familiar territory, but then the Greek classics have been reworked since their conception, and will be forever more. But as long as we have directors and their cast working such with collaboration and candour, these stories can only evolve and be reborn into new story telling delights.
As a first time director Hossein has done an outstanding job, but his approach to a genuine collaborative process will stand to him, and indeed us in an industry that seems intent on the demise of returns.
’The Two Faces Of January’ is out now