“The Two Faces of January” is a stylish, visual feast of a thriller set in the 1960’s and starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac. Even the score sounds retro in this film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel and written and directed by Hossein Amini (“Drive”).
Highsmith was the author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and while “The Two Faces of January” isn’t quite the masterpiece that Ripley was, the movie is still a fun ride.
Viggo and Kirsten play a wealthy American couple (Chester and Colette) vacationing in Greece when New Jersey native Oscar Isaac (Rydal) catches sight of them and decides they’re easy marks for a couple of quick scams. Rydal is making a living as a tour guide in Greece, and he figures it wouldn’t hurt to get in with the seemingly rich couple.
What follows are a series of twists and turns that always kept me guessing. In other words, all is not as it appears with Chester and Colette, and Rydal gets much more than he bargained for.
The role is an unusual one for Viggo. He wears a pristine linen suit (at least it starts pristine) and is insecure, worried that his much younger wife is perhaps interested in their new tour guide. But his character has still more going on in his life than meets the eye.
Hossein (known as “Hoss”), who also wrote the screenplay and took plenty of liberties with the novel, pays great attention to keeping the time period of the film believable. (You can even tell from the stills that certain filters were used to give the action a 60’s look.)
The movie’s threesome end up on a bus on a Greek island (I never got a chance to ask where they found that great old bus), and the movie later moves on to Istanbul.
Hossein, Viggo, and Kirsten gathered with journalists in New York this week to talk about the movie. Viggo arrived in an all-black suit, and Kirsten wore white and black. Someone commented that they were coordinated, and Viggo said, “She dressed me, and I dressed her.” Kirsten quickly said, “Careful!!” joking that the comment could be taken wrong.
Below are some of the highlights of the conversation between the director, actors, and journalists:
Hossein on adapting Highsmith’s novel for the screen:
As an author, Highsmith was always much more interested in character and psychology than she was in her plot. And the plots are sometimes a bit loose and go off in strange directions, and you don’t know why something’s happening.
But that was also what I loved about the book was these fascinating characters and just the ambiguity and the fact that one minute they were cruel, and then they were incredibly caring. They just kept changing and shifting.
Viggo on the film’s characters:
I like that they’re messy in their behavior sometimes. It’s really expertly written. It’s one of those times where the movie not only lives up to the book but is better than the book. In terms of the characters, they’re more layered. You have somewhere to start and somewhere to go to in the movie with them…
These kinds of stories that she writes, Highsmith, lets you have secrets, lets you have an inner world. You don’t have to make it up for yourself. It’s there on the page, and you just have to live up to it.
On filming in Greece:
Hossein: Everyone we cast for the extras, it was all open castings in Crete and in all the places we shot in. I think it was just so important to the authenticity of the movie that we shot in the places that Highsmith had written in the novel because I think that the landscape is a part of the psychology of the characters.
Kirsten: If I got done early from work, I’d go swimming in the sea, which was such a luxury. We’d take a cab to the local beach. It was so nice. I haven’t really shot a movie where it felt like this could be a vacation. I think this is the only movie I’ve done where it’s been like that. I understand now why Adam Sandler does … every movie he does is in a vacation spot. I’ve got to get in one of these movies!
Viggo: We didn’t have to make believe anything about where we were.
Kirsten: No green screen.
Kirsten on whether the character of Colette is “fickle”:
Listen, you’ve got to love the people you play. I don’t look at her and go, “She’s fickle.” You know what I mean? Every move she makes is a feeling that I think is servicing her, yes, because she has to protect herself. But also, I do think she loves her husband, and he does start to push her away.
Hossein on the film’s mythology:
I think there is this sort of mythological underpinning to this story. And I think [Highsmith] is also interested in it as a kind of Greek tragedy, that you have these characters who appear golden at the beginning. They’re almost like a Fitzgerald couple who are beautifully dressed and look beautiful, and then, whether it’s the fates or destiny or the Greek gods, something conspires against them and tries to destroy them.
Viggo on preparing for work on a film:
I love that process before you start shooting. Even if the movie experience, the shoot, or the movie itself doesn’t turn out to be as good as you thought it might be, the period before, there’s no limit. You can read as much as you want, look at as many things, think as many thoughts, make as many notes, ask as many questions.
And then, you’ve got to put that aside because you’re face to face with actors and listening to the director, and they say “Action!” You’ve got to be there and forget everything and just assume that the most useful of it is in you, is assimilated somehow. But I love that period because that’s always good; that’s never bad…. It’s a chance to see the world from a point of view different than mine.
In this case, one thing you don’t see is the people I spoke to – my dad’s generation, the ones that are left – people like that who were in World War II… I asked them about some of the terminology that we used in the script and just “What was it like?”
Hossein on discovering, through directing for the first time, the importance of making changes to a screenplay:
If you shoot the screenplay exactly as written, it’s a disaster. I think if you don’t allow the fluidity of the process and what everyone else brings to it and the life that happens on a film set and the accidents and all of that, it can become – it’s almost like being stillborn. It just doesn’t come to life. So, in a way, now, as a writer, if someone said, “I’ve shot your script exactly as written,” I’d be terrified.
On memorable moments during the shoot:
Viggo: Kirsten feeding the monastery’s cats.
Kirsten: I fed a lot of cats…. Viggo burned me once. He had to illuminate a scene with a lighter, and he put the lighter down. But it was so hot, and he was holding me. And my arm was like … I didn’t move it because I was afraid because … I didn’t want to move my arm.
Viggo: She’s scarred for life.
Kirsten: A slight scar.
Kirsten on first meeting Viggo:
Kirsten: We met in an elevator in Toronto once, and we didn’t know we were going to work together…. I was like, “Uh oh! This is going to be an intense movie. Viggo’s intense.” Then, I found out he’s a big…
Kirsten: Dork. [Laughter]