Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Two Faces of January: My Take on the book by Patricia Highsmith


The Two Faces of January starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaacs is playing in theaters now.

The last time I posted about Patricia Highsmith's The Two Faces of January, I was just over halfway through the book and loving it. I found it suspenseful and full of sexual tension and told you that I could hardly wait for the thriller to be adapted for the screen. I've now finished the novel and while something utterly unexpected occurred just past that halfway point that thoroughly shook me, my enthusiasm for the project hasn't changed. 

Avoiding spoilers - it's such a good read - here's how the story is described on the book jacket-
"Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American expat working as a tour guide and running cons on the side. He is mostly killing time, searching for adventure. But in Chester McFarland, a charismatic American businessman, and his flirtatious and beautiful young wife, Colette, Rydal finds more than he bargained for. After an incident at a hotel puts the wealthy couple in danger, Rydal ties his fate to theirs. He's compromised. Events spin out of control, and infatuation and sexual tension mount among the dangerous triangle, building to a shocking climax among the labyrinthine ruins."
That climax is truly shocking, and truthfully, I was initially so put off by the turn of events I was reluctant to read on. But in for a penny - (or 200 or so pages) - in for a pound (finish the damn book!) so I read on and I'm glad I did. It's such a cat and mouse game, with the players so well-matched I really had no idea who would win out - if anyone - in the end.



I'm nervous to say much more for fear of ruining it for those of you who haven't read The Two Faces of January yet, but I can say Patricia Highsmith wasn't called the #1 crime writer of all time by the London Times for nothing! The author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt and a slew of other novels and short stories knew how to craft intrigue. I think part of her exceptional skill is her understanding of the weakness of men - and women - and how our duplicitous, self-centered natures can land us in some very hot water if we're not careful of where we go, and who we go with.

None of the three characters is careful, not careful enough anyway. There is a constant question of who to trust.  And all three are liars to one degree or another, including being guilty of the cardinal sin of lying to themselves. Our friend Rydal seems particularly disposed to that. It's always dicey to have main characters that aren't exactly entirely likable. Colette is a tease, and dependent on your point of view, an adulteress, too content with her financial circumstances to question their unsavory source. Rydal is greedy, opportunistic and self-centered, McFarland is little more than a self-entitled crook; both men believe their rights, their needs, their desires trump all others. 



And yet. While not likable there is something fascinating about this menage a trois, how they interact with each other, as well as the world they travel in. Much like a train wreck, you can't stop watching them. Colette is a shameless flirt. Rydal is quietly seductive. And Chester McFarland is a compelling contradiction of a swaggering faux captain of industry mixed with the blood, sweat and tears of a frightened man sensing only loss in his future. 
"Chester cursed his fate. To be tied up with someone like Rydal Keener, just the age and type Colette liked, to be dependent on him, to have to ask him to stick with him and stick by him!"
Highsmith takes us from Athens to Crete to Paris; like any armchair traveller I found the change of scenery exciting. Just counting the number of hotels we visit would make an awfully good drinking game. Highsmith also populates the book with a supporting cast of characters that keep us guessing, most notably Niko, a Greek vendor of sponges, lottery tickets, and perhaps a passport or two or three. I was never absolutely sure which side of his gold-rimmed toothy mouth he was talking out of; such seems to be the case with Highsmith who knows the world is full of bad guys and good guys who will all too easily turn for a drachma or two. 

I'm curious to see how the book will be translated to film as it's written and directed by Hossein Amini who wrote the very taut script for Drive although much of that script was allegedly stripped according to both director Nicholas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling. No matter, I'm especially excited to see Viggo Mortensen as Chester, Oscar Isaac as Rydal and Kirsten Dunst as Colette. Incidentally, Isaac was Carrey Mulligan's fresh-out-of-jail husband in Drive, as well as her sometimes lover in Inside Llewyn Davis. He's a chameleon-like actor on the verge of blowing up; I think he'll be fun to watch as more and more people discover his talent.


Take a look at the trailer if you like but heed the warning, like more and more trailers, it gives an awful lot away. You may just want to wait and let the thriller unfurl before your eyes in a nicely darkened theater. I'm hoping it's as dark and seductive a thriller as the novel. From my vantage point it looks it. 




1 comment:

  1. The description immediately made me think of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Hope the movie wows you as much as the book.

    ReplyDelete

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