Monday, September 22, 2014

Two Faces of January: The Somewhat Talented Mr. MacFarland

He is an American veteran with a considerably younger wife and a flexible conscience. He cuts a Don Draper-like figure, but Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero was created during the Mad Men era. The Greek coppers are no match for Chester MacFarland, but an under-achieving Ivy Leaguer will be a more formidable rival in Hossein Amini’s adaptation of The Two Faces of January (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Although he shares a clear kinship with the talented Tom 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 on-screen. Frankly, some of Hossein’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 1960’s Greece.

Regardless, Viggo Mortensen might have been born to play MacFarland, subtly hinting at all the neuroses the strong, silent anti-hero is bluffing over. Frankly, Mortensen’s powerfully understated performance and the tilt of Hossein’s screenplay complete 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 Kirsten Dunst, but Oscar Isaac’s Keener is equally empty.

Fortunately, villains (and anti-heroes) 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 this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Empire.