The Two Faces of January (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago I tried following a published list of great novels, the aim being to read and then blog about my own findings. The project didn’t last, but before giving up I managed to take in Strangers on a Train and that led to a bit of a love affair with the work of Patricia Highsmith. The piece is here, by the way – it’s a bit of a rambler, but that’s nothing new from me. Getting through the book was easy enough; after all, I love the film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock and it turned out that he’d cherry picked from the text. In the novel, both ‘strangers’ become mired in guilty acts whereas the film diverts from this path, making Guy into a fairly straightforward hero who never quite falls into Bruno’s trap. The book, told largely from Guy’s perspective, gets into its villains’ heads and actually generates some sympathy for these people who have committed evil acts and the guilt that completely ensnares them by the close. It’s definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than for the appearance of a hangdog detective who surely helped to create the template for the long-running Columbo.

The Two Faces of January is a less celebrated Highsmith, but it explores many of the same themes as covered in Strangers on a Train and is no less fascinating. That it took fifty years for the 1964 novel to be adapted for the screen is a little curious considering it won awards at the time, but script writer Hossein Amini had always wanted the job and got to do it for his 2014 directorial debut. The story is classic Highsmith. Set in Greece, the narrative follows three characters, none of whom are especially nice, on a doom-laden descent. Rydal (played in the film by Oscar Isaac) is a petty young grifter, based in Athens and hiring himself out as a tour guide, seducing young women and using his Greek language skills to weasel shoppers who don’t understand the currency exchange rate out of their money. He comes across Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), on the surface a pair of easy marks, wandering the Acropolis, well dressed, affluent and floating through their holiday. Rydal makes their acquaintance and finds them to be pleasant company, particularly the lovely and apparently guileless Colette. But then the action starts following the couple, back to their hotel room where Chester is disturbed by a private investigator. Money is demanded from him on behalf of some swindled investors. We learn that Chester has gone under different aliases, that the cash he throws around might come from unsavoury business practices. A fight breaks out and the dick is accidentally killed. Chester tries to hide the body and Rydal turns up to help him, from then on becoming the couple’s accomplice as they attempt to flee the scene of the crime and relocate to Crete. As Rydal and the MacFarlands journey across the island, trying to avoid any collision with the authorities and waiting for the fake passports that are being arranged by the young man’s shady Greek contacts, their friendship begins to crack. Chester turns increasingly to drink, and Colette becomes closer to Rydal who is nearer her age. Jealousies and tension threaten their relationship, all of which comes to a head as they’re stuck in the Minoan ruins at Knossos.

While the story could take place any time, Amini stays with the novel’s early 1960s setting, giving his film a period feel and pacing it in contemporary style. The sexual tension, while present as Chester starts suspecting his wife and Rydal of sparking an affair behind his booze-soaked back, is more oblique than shown and is actually toned down from what takes place in the novel. A key scene, in which Chester sleeps off his hangover with sedatives leaving Colette to make herself available to Rydal, is cut at the exact moment when it appears she’s moving in for a kiss. Does anything happen? The film implies yes, but it’s an unreliable narrator and you’re left wondering about the exact truth, whether Colette is a flighty piece of work or it’s all part of Chester’s mounting paranoia, which leads to him getting soaked and taking to the streets in a drunken, attention-grabbing pursuit.

Reviews have compared The Two Faces of January to The Talented Mr Ripley, another Highsmith adaptation that came out in 1999. If anything though, Amini appears to stick closer to Strangers on a Train and makes a film with definite shades of Hitchcock, Alberto Iglesias’s violin-driven score carrying heavy overtones of Bernard Herrmann as the suspense mounts. It’s lusciously filmed, the Greek scenery looking like an earthly paradise as a backdrop for the film’s dark deeds. Amini was fortunate enough to be given the rarely granted permission to film at the Acropolis, and at times had to stop shoots due to nearby riots taking place over the Greek government debt crisis.

At its heart, the film works on the performances of its three leads. I’ve been a fan of Mortsensen for some time, though I did get the initial impression his casting was a bit off the mark given Chester is written as a well fed, middle aged drunkard and the actor seems to have far too much charisma to make it work. In fact it’s just fine. Mortensen channels the spirit of Joseph Cotten in his playing, especially his tendency to mumble through some of the character’s drunker moments, and he even gets to copy Cotten’s malicious tone from Shadow of a Doubt when passing on some cynical life lessons about jaded maturity to Rydal, who transforms into a kind of spiritual son. As Chester’s veneer of easy charm cracks, his descent into drink and delusion is terrifying and Mortensen gets it across perfectly. Kirsten Dunst made little impression on me until her work in Melancholia, perhaps a case of waiting for the right and more mature roles to come along. The duplicity of her character, and her willingness to use beauty to switch her allegiances from Chester to Rydal as she realises the former is going down, is really well conveyed, suggesting a somewhat seedy back story of how she married the older man in the first place. And then there’s Oscar Isaac, an actor who has become ubiquitous with the last few years and in great form here. Rydal isn’t an especially great guy, but the personal tragedies that have relocated him from America and the fact he finds himself out of his depth as his fate intertwines with the MacFarlands makes him an engaging third lead, not so much a hero but certainly the least guilty of the three.

Made like a classical thriller, a bit like Mad Men in its decision to keep sex scenes and gaudy violence mostly off the screen, the Two Faces of January is a film I really enjoyed and I was disappointed that it vanished almost as soon as it appeared. It certainly warrants another look, especially with Highsmith’s work once again being promoted as the more personal Carol does the rounds and its performers receive recognition in Academy circles.

The Two Faces of January: ****

The Prophecy (1995)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 October (9.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been numerous attempts to portray the Devil on screen over the years. Two films in this week’s Halloween run of write-ups feature Old Nick, my favourite coming on Saturday, and personally I prefer my Satan to be a subtle and persuasive presence. You can keep shouty Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate. Give me Robert De Niro as a mysterious, sinister Louis Cypher in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart any day, or play him for dark laughs as Peter Cook did in the Faustian Bedazzled.

In The Prophecy, a young, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen essays Lucifer as an almost businesslike fallen angel, turning up on the unlikely side of the humans because the Archangel Gabriel is trying to capture an unmitigatingly evil soul that will create a second Hell, which is one Hell too many. Beautiful and malevolent, there’s an undeniably sinister aura to his Satan. Everyone who comes across him knows who he is on sight because the Devil is an unmistakable character, and he comes out with outrageous lines like ‘I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk‘ without missing a single beat. Lucifer appears in the film for the last ten minutes, but it’s a brilliant cameo from Mortensen who plays him completely straight and conveys everything that’s both attractive and terrible about the character.

Mortensen is just one member of a finely chosen cast of characters in this movie, a rather silly (but no less compelling) entry about the war between angels spilling over into events on Earth. Eric Stoltz, who always strikes me as one of those perenially ‘under the radar’ actors, plays Simon, a ‘good’ angel who passes on the soul of the cannibalistic General Hawthorne – a veteran of the Korean War who treated the conflict as a personal playground for his atrocities – to a little girl in order to shield it from forces that would use it for evil. Simon might be on the side of right, but he’s also practical and the seedier side to his interactions with the girl have real power. The villain is Gabriel (Christopher Walken), attempting to end his war with God by releasing Hawthorne’s soul into Heaven and allowing the essence of evil in to finish the favouring of humankind. This could be a concept treated with hopeless solemnity, but instead director Gregory Widen and actor Walken have fun with Gabriel and turn the plot into a pulpy thriller, never taking itself too seriously. Walken in particular has a whale of a time, dealing with the recently dead people he’s reanimated as servants to be toyed with, and using his powers with wild abandon. There’s a brilliant scene where he’s chatting with a bunch of schoolkids as he’s checking each one to see if they contain Hawthorne’s soul. He’s actually great company for the children, but with that element of being able to smite them with one wave of his finger if he so chooses.

If any characters come across as lesser presences, then it’s undeniably the human ones, played by Elias Koteas and Virginia Madsen, and it’s unfair on them because the angels get all the best lines and scenes. Koteas, like Stoltz one of those reliable performers who’s never received the plaudits his work deserves, plays a detective who earlier in his life was training to be a priest, only failing to be confirmed when his visions of the war in heaven overtake his faith. His career turn of joining the police is an inevitable development, turning down the priesthood for a job in the most earthly role possible, one where he gets to experience human horrors on a daily basis. When his character interacts with Simon and later the bad angel that tried to destroy him, he finds himself being sucked into the story and becomes opposed to Gabriel, an uneven battle but one in which he’s determined to play a part. Madsen is yet another ‘what if’ actor, here playing a schoolteacher who by association with the luckless young Mary and her encounter with Simon fights alongside Koteas.

The daft, overblown plot runs more like an action/crime thriller with horror overtones, which favours it as the whole thing plays like a knowing wink with the audience, the sort of gesture Gabriel himself would no doubt make. Widen cut his teeth as a screenwriter, coming up with the screenplay for Highlander, which proved his talent for producing high concept drama that has no idea of a ceiling – the story only really unravels with its sequel, which tries unsuccessfully to make more of the characters than the plot can support. A firefighter, he experienced personally a backdraft, which led to his writing work on Ron Howard’s film of the same name.

It’s a shame that Widen didn’t get to do more work in film – The Prophecy is lots of fun and definitely holds together. He uses an actor like Walken exactly as he should, taking advantage of the actor’s unearthly, pallid look to present Gabriel as a white-faced spectre with a shock of black hair. Walken shifts through the film with real grace. Even scenes where he enters a room and looks around are attractive because, with a glance, he can get across his character’s otherworldly quality, and I love the way he and the other angels perch on the edge of chairs and other objects like birdlike, weightless sprites, emphasising their unreal natures that seem impossible to humans, without the need of special effects to make the point. On the whole, it relies on good actors over storytelling with the heavy use of CGI or practical effects. This betrays The Prophecy’s relatively low budget (despite its strong cast, most of the actors were recruited without great cost, a stroke of fortunate timing), but the quality of the performances transcends most shortcomings.

The Prophecy: ***

P.S. Another shout out for Multitude of Movies, the magazine I’m proud to be part of and that has recently published its third and best issue to date. Running over 100 pages and featuring articles on such diverse topics as Sean Connery’s Bond movies, the non-horror work by Mario Bava and spaghetti western Black Jack, there’s something for everyone and as always I’m impressed with the scope of the features and the quality of the original writing and artwork. A lot of heart goes into this publication – you can purchase it from the website, which also features a growing series of original content reviews. I have contributed to this with a look at Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, a title to which I owe Colin my thanks for introducing me to it.

The Road (2009)

When it’s on: Sunday, 27 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Post-apocalyptic films are nothing new. A couple of weeks ago, I covered I am Legend on these pages. Made two years before The Road, it proved there was life in the genre, yet John Hillcoat’s latter work – adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel – is kind of the anti-I am Legend. The theme of loneliness is discarded for one of almost unremitting bleakness. Will Smith lived in relative comfort even in an empty New York. The Road portrays an America in which all good things have gone. Its world is a dying one in which the few remaining humans scratch out the meanest of existences.

Most of the critical acclaim for this film went to actors Viggo Mortsensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Man and Boy, but equally good are the cinematography and production design. The Road presents a land without colour. Its washed out, grey palette is utterly appropriate and as repellent as the main characters in their dirt and ancient clothes. Some unexplained catastrophe has taken place on a planetary scale. Man and Boy make their way towards the sea, doing all they can to avoid human contact – because most surviving people prey on the weak for food – in the kind of hope that could be futile, indeed it’s implied that the end of their journey won’t necessarily end well, but Man can’t allow Boy to fall into despair. So they travel, walking past lifeless trees and ruined houses, occasionally stopping to search for food, treating every noise with suspicion, pushing a shopping trolley that’s laden with their few meagre possessions.

An early scene that takes place in an old mansion – where Man discovers exactly what happens to many of the surviving people – provides a harrowing note of drama, yet much of the film’s interest lies in the dynamic between the leads. There’s a lovely balance of sensibilities – Man regretful and slowly dying of cancer; Boy hopeful and open – and a real honesty. The chemistry is beyond doubt. Yet there’s tension also. Man’s belief that everyone they come across must be hostile is sometimes correct, but more and more it’s apparent that he’s alienating them from any possibility of connecting with anyone else. Boy’s exasperation with his father increases as he longs for company, and in that company a sort of hope and continuity. Their past life is outlined in flashbacks, which depict the life Man had with his wife, Woman (Charlize Theron), before the catastrophe, and her mental anguish at giving birth in a dying world.

One of the more impressive aspects about The Road is the relative lack of CGI. Parts of it were filmed around the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which replicated the environment of the film. It’s believable, because it’s really there. The same’s true for the lack of meat on Mortensen’s bones. Ever the method actor, Mortensen starved himself and took to wearing the same clothes and not washing for weeks, eventually getting turfed out of stores for the way he smelled. In the film, this clash between the two worlds is made explicit in a scene where Man and Boy uncover a secret hoard of provisions. For two days, they’re able to live like people used to. The tender way Man smokes a cigar gives an almost heartbreaking image of things lost, never to return.

The Road isn’t an easy watch. Its effort to depict a realistic post-apocalyptic backdrop ensures the lack of colour and indeed life. Man and Boy look ill because they most likely are, half-starved and exposed to an environment that has killed just about everything in it. Yet the emotional core is sublime, the acting between the two leads first rate, whilst cameos by some well respected performers – Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce turn up, playing very different people – are entirely credible.

The Road: ****