“The Two Faces of January” is a suspense thriller starring Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Road,” “A History of Violence”). It is based on a 1964 book of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Strangers on a Train”), and the screenplay was written by Hossein Amini (“Drive”), who also had his first stint as director for this film. It’s an impressive kickoff.
The story is set in the early 1960s and begins with a flawlessly dressed couple. There’s an age gap between them but, sadly, that’s so common in Hollywood I barely noticed. Chester (Mortensen) and Collette (Kirsten Dunst) MacFarland seem obviously in love and enjoying sightseeing in Greece. It’s easy to feel a stab of envy. They look like they have it all.
While visiting the Acropolis, Chester’s antennae spike like an alpha dog sensing a threat when he spots Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a younger, handsome, Greek-speaking American tour guide pulling cons on unsuspecting tourists. Oddly, Chester witnesses Rydal’s thievery, but does nothing to rat him out. It reminded me of that adage, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Chester seems to want to keep an eye on Rydal. Collette likes him, and Rydal can be useful because he knows the area, so Chester let’s him glom on.
Parts of the movie are suspenseful and thrilling, but it’s missing that je ne sais quoi. In the end it feels disappointing. When I watched it, the film smelled awfully similar to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and I hadn’t known it was based on a book written by the same author. I walked out feeling a let down because “The Two Faces of January” was close to being great but ultimately fell short. The film stuck with me, though, and I’m glad I saw it. Perhaps blinded by my movie-star crush on Mortensen or because thrillers are my favorite genre, I can recommend it but with the caveat that out of four stars I give it two.
After my crush confession, it’s probably no surprise that my heart pounded before meeting the Renaissance man, Mortensen. I first fell for him as “the blouse man” in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon.” He’d already caught my eye the year before in “A Perfect Murder” and then again in a succession of movies including “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”
It was also a treat to speak with Amini and Dunst (Isaac was not available at the time).
Dorri Olds: Were there any surprises while making this movie?
Viggo Mortensen: What surprised me was that the movie company agreed to let us film in Greece and Istanbul. Now, with green screen, you can fake things. Also, Greece was undergoing — and still is — a turmoil with strikes and a tough economy, and it was complicated to film in Istanbul. It’s a crazy city with all of those back streets, but I was surprised in a good way. I was happy to get to do all of that. There are always going to be things that surprise you. What didn’t surprise me was that Hoss [Hossein Amini] did such a good job. I could see he was really prepared even before we started.
Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, in the beginning he said, “I haven’t directed before because I haven’t wanted to, and this is the only film that I’ve wanted to direct.” He was like, “I’m just going to direct this movie, and that’s it.” Then, after the first few days he said, “I like this. I’m going to be doing more of this.”
VM: And he should. It’s one of the best debuts I’ve ever seen.
When you’re playing such a dark character and the director says, “Cut,” is it easy to be yourself again?
VM: Yeah. We goofed around a lot. We were very dorky and had a lot of fun. That doesn’t always happen. Usually when you’re having a great time, you’re just fartin’ around and it feels effortless.
KD: [Laughs] Fartin’ around.
VM: I guess I’m still talking like Chester.
KD: To me, that’s old-lady talk.
VM: [Pretending to be an older woman] OK, kids, now stop fartin’ around. [Laughs]
What were some of the challenges?
KD: Sometimes it was hard being the only female. Collette is objectified, and that’s the source of tension between Viggo and Oscar’s characters. I wanted to do this because I love the script so much, and Viggo had been already attached to the project. So I wanted to make Collette as much of an interesting character as I could.
VM: Which you did. Hoss started it because in the book, there’s not a lot to her. She doesn’t have too many dimensions. She doesn’t have much class or intelligence or elegance or thoughtfulness or sensitivity. Then Hoss wrote it better, and Kirsten took it further. In the novel, Chester was already what he becomes in the movie — sweaty and desperate and paranoid. He wasn’t as interesting. It didn’t really give you somewhere to go as an actor. In the film, when you first see us, we look happy. You see this great life they have.
It’s hard with Highsmith’s females. They’re not typically as well-written or layered as the male characters. Collette in the novel is a typical Highsmith female in that she is objectified and not real deep. In the book, Collette isn’t bothered by any of it. She just wants to get what she can get, and that’s all she cares about. In the movie, I think we made her much more interesting.
How was it to work with Oscar Isaac?
KD: I knew Oscar from before this film. I already knew him in a very familiar way so that made it easier. I behaved very differently just naturally doing scenes with both Oscar and Viggo. My whole being was different with each of them. I get farther away from Chester and closer to Rydal.
VM: Yeah, I kept pushing her away, not trying to but I was so worried about what was happening with them that I got paranoid.
KD: He’s an American, and I haven’t been there in a while. Chester and I have been on the lam. Here’s this young guy who knows New York, and there’s a familiarity and an immediate connection there just because of our age. And the more paranoid Chester gets and pushes me away, the more I deter towards Rydal to take me out of here, to get away. I don’t see Collette ever running off with him. I always saw him as a possible way to get out of there, just get out of Greece. Towards the end, it feels a little bit like every man for himself. That’s what’s scary, and that’s why what happens to my character happens.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
KD: I only did one movie this year. It’ll come out next year. It’s called “Midnight Special.” It was the director Jeff Nichols that did “Mud” and “Take Shelter.”
VM: I have two coming out. One is called “Jauja.” It’s a strange movie, and my first Danish role. I play a Danish military guy in the 1880s who goes to Argentina with his 15-year-old daughter to work for the army. Like most dads, he’s the last man to realize that his little girl is becoming a woman and the guys are checking her out. He freaks out because they’re in the middle of nowhere, and there’s all these soldiers. She runs off with this guy, and then I try to go find her in the desert. I got to do my dad’s accent. It was hilarious. I speak Spanish and Danish. My brothers are going to laugh when they see it. Then there’s another called “Far From Men.” I play a schoolteacher in the ’50s in Algeria.
Viggo, when I Google you, there are very few paparazzi photos. How have you managed to keep a private life?
VM: I kind of mind my own business. I live in Spain — but they’re pretty bad with that. When I was first there, there was some of that, and you can’t do anything about it. They have those long lenses, so you don’t know where the hell they are, but I think with me, eventually they just get tired of only getting boring pictures. It’s just me walking a dog or I just lost my keys or sleeping on a curb.
VM: Long story. [Smiles] They probably just think it’s dull following me. When “Lord of the Rings” first came out, there was a lot of that. There’s pictures of me carrying the dog inside the vet’s office or coming out of 7-Eleven at three in the morning with a donut in my mouth. I think they just said, “This guy just goes into bars and watches soccer games. He’s boring.”
KD: They’re worse to women. I live in the Valley, which is as low key as you can get for living in L.A., but there’s this one gym where a lot of actresses and models go. It’s a fun gym, and [paparazzi] just sit there every day in the Valley waiting. They get you walking out of the gym all sweaty, and it never gets old. How do they keep selling that same picture of me in workout clothes and dripping sweat? There’s no story. I wear the same thing every time.
In a separate interview, I sat down with Amini.
I read that you recognized yourself in these flawed characters. How?
Hossein Amini: I think everyone has been jealous or paranoid or been at a dinner or party and felt very vulnerable or alone when everyone else is having a good time. I guess it’s the secrets we all have, the fragility and cruelty. When someone you love says something that hurts you, you hurt them back, and it spirals. It’s those tiny human moments that I recognized. It’s Chester’s paranoia and jealousy that practically pushes Collette into Rydal’s arms.
What difficulties did you run into adapting the book to a screenplay?
I think Patricia Highsmith is more interested in the psychology of her characters, so the plotting was the hardest bit.
Was it a thrill when Viggo came on board?
Yes! And a big surprise. I went to see him in Spain and one of the things I remember is the feeling that I was auditioning for a movie star. I expected to be kept waiting for days, but it went completely opposite of what I’d imagined. First, he phoned to make sure I was alright as soon as I’d arrived at my hotel, he walked to my hotel to meet me and took me out to dinner. He paid. He wouldn’t let me pay. That’s just an example of what a kind and gracious man he is. He made me feel very, very comfortable. I never felt like I had to prove that I can write or convince him to do it. We had an equal discussion of ideas. That’s what I love about him. It’s always the best idea wins. He listens and contributes enormously. He felt more like a partner than an actor on the movie. It’s not about, “I’m a movie star, and I have the power.”
Viggo writes, paints, takes photos, composes music. Is he as remarkable as he seems?
Yes, and there’s an obsessiveness that borders on genius. He has such a strong personality and whatever mood he’s in you feel. He is an artist in every way. The attention to detail is remarkable. For example, remembering exactly where he put the cup down on the previous take. His continuity is extraordinary.
He’s such a lovely man and a close friend now. One funny thing happened in London. Viggo and Kirsten and I were walking, and this woman ran up and handed her camera to Viggo and asked him to take a picture of her with Kirsten. She didn’t have any idea who he was. [Laughs] He found it hilarious.
Can you describe working with Kirsten?
I’d seen her in so many movies. What I was really struck by is how smart she is. She has this extraordinary intuitive sense of a scene. She knows what’s going to work and what’s not. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up being a fantastic director. There’s an intelligence and sensitivity and almost telepathic understanding of the people she’s working with.
Oscar I knew already because we worked on “Drive” together. I’d always wanted to cast him in this movie, but he had a very small part in “Drive,” so I couldn’t get the film financed with him playing Rydal. But, by the time our film got made he’d been in the “Llewyn Davis” movie. Suddenly everyone kept asking, “Can you still get Oscar?”
With Viggo I think there is pain and so much searching in the performance, and that’s what makes him extraordinary. With Oscar, it’s almost a lightness. If they were two tennis players, one is all power and strength, and the other has a fleetness. I think Oscar has a bright future.
What was it like working with Ryan Gosling in “Drive”?
He’s great. He’s very much like Viggo in that he has these moods and really digs down to get these extraordinary performances. They don’t play parts — they become parts.
Is there a dark side to Viggo and Ryan?
Yeah, I think a dark side is part of their genius. The actors that I love all have that slightly dangerous element. I think that edginess is what they draw on that gives truth to their performances.
Lastly, how do you ride with the ups and downs of filmmaking?
In the film business, it is about picking yourself up again. Whether things go well or badly I still get up every day and write.
“The Two Faces of January” opens Friday Sept 26. Rated PG-13. 98 min.
Watch the trailer:
Watch excerpts from the interviews:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.