Hossein Amini spent many years working as a screenwriter with credits as diverse as Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers (2002) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) before making his directorial debut with an adaptation of Highsmith’s ninth novel. Set in 1962, The Two Faces of January centres on suave American fraudster Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) who meet unscrupulous ex-pat tour guide Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac) while holidaying in Greece. When Chester’s criminal past catches up with him, Rydal agrees to help the couple evade the authorities. Early on in the film, the sensation is that Rydal’s motivation in helping the McFarlands is a romantic attraction to Colette, but as Highsmith reveals in the novel, there is another – perhaps less obvious – reason: ‘Rydal realised that Chester’s resemblance to his father was the main reason why he had so suddenly and spontaneously helped […] It implied, Rydal thought, a lurking respect for his father. He did not like that thought.’
‘I wanted to write a book about a young, footloose American […] in search of adventure’ Highsmith later wrote, ‘not a beatnik but a rather civilized and intelligent young man, and not a criminal, either. And I wanted to write about the effect on this young man of encountering a stranger who closely resembles his own domineering father.’ It’s interesting to note that Amini’s depiction of the relationship between Chester and Colette MacFarland was inspired partly by the travelling American couple at the centre of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Paul Bowles adaptation The Sheltering Sky (1990) – a film that stars Debra Winger and none other than Cavani’s urbane, middle-aged Ripley, John Malkovich.
From the old school glamour of its three leads to its cinematography and editing, the elegant classicism of The Two Faces of January belies its comparatively modest budget. The widescreen images of DoP Marcel Zyskind – best known perhaps for his versatile work with Michael Winterbottom on films such as In This World (2002), Code 46 (2003) and 9 Songs (2004) – have a slightly de-saturated, desert-yellow hue complemented beautifully by Alberto Iglesias’ score.