Friday 23 May 2014

The Two Faces of January

When it comes to literary depictions of sinister amorality, there are few better exponents than the late Patricia Highsmith. Themes of avarice, criminality, latent homosexuality and antiheroism — if not outright villainy — pepper her refined, often cruelly resolved, novels. 

Best known for her ‘Ripliad’, a series of stories centred on the cunning protagonist Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s universe is both gloomy and often marked by ostensible elegance and luxury. Ripley was a calculating con artist, coldly pursuing the opulence, power and influence in no way owed to him. He was birthed from the darkness embraced so readily by his creator. Matt Damon’s murderously conniving, emotionally ambiguous performance was especially chilling in Anthony Minghella’s masterful The Talented Mr Ripley, an adaptation which rooted Highsmith’s horrifying creation firmly in the modern zeitgeist. 

The world of Ripley is that of the beautiful Mediterranean climes so attractive to the well-heeled American ex-pats — compatriots, of course — who constitute his prey. Indeed, The Two Faces of January plays out under the same azure skies of southern Europe. Based on Highsmith’s 1964 book, Hossein Amini’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot, genuinely gripping psychological thriller which mines the same cringe-inducing tension between courtesy and repulsion that rendered Minghella’s dramatic study of insincerity so fascinating. While the characters here are less horrifying than the parasitic Ripley, and the feckless Dickie Greenleaf, they are just as complex. 

Opening in 1962, on the bustling steps of the Parthenon, January introduces Rydal Keener, an urbane multilingual American wastrel who makes his living as a tour guide, gently exploiting college girls and creaming commissions from wealthy, clueless visitors to his Athenian patch. Fresh off his weighty turn in the Coens’ stunning Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac imbues Rydal with a fascinating mix of shiftiness and likeability. On the one hand, he is clearly an opportunistic dandy, drifting from scam to scam and fleeing personal demons – a difficult home life in the US is hinted at throughout  on the other, Isaac skilfully suggests that Rydal is genuinely layered. Financial motivations aside, there is much to consider behind his faintly mournful eyes.

From the moment his attention is captured by wealthy New York couple Chester and Colette MacFarland, Rydal’s fate becomes somewhat more tenuous. The MacFarlands should be the perfect mark: malleable, gullible, loaded. Unfortunately for Rydal, his street wisdom is not enough to save him from ensnarement in their secretive travails. Played with sophistication by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, the duo are not exactly Bonnie and Clyde but appearances are increasingly deceptive. Ironically, Rydal, for all his lightweight trickery, emerges as the film’s least obscure individual. 

Witness to the aftermath of unintended violence, he spots an opening for a quick profit, yet is also vaguely bewitched by Colette. Kirsten Dunst is an increasingly serious, eclectic performer and her portrayal here is many things: lovely, subtle, loyal and tragic. At her side, Mortensen’s is a towering presence. While this handsome swindler, veering from genial and wise to brutally pragmatic, may be out of his comfort zone, he is not particularly out of his depth. Like Ripley, he is resourceful; less of a chameleon, perhaps, but possessed of a talent for survival. 

Thrown together, voluntarily at first, Rydal and the MacFarlands exchange pleasantries and superficial affection. The bonhomie, however, lasts only as long as an evening meal. From that point on, an air of quiet awkwardness is prevalent. These people, in truth, have only their passports in common, and even those are false. 

It is here that the comparisons with Highsmith’s earlier material seems most apposite. Granted, there is no moment to rival Greenleaf’s horrifying, toe-curling realisation that Ripley’s suffocating companionship represents more than an irritating obsession. Yet, as Rydal is sucked deeper into the bog, as his life and liberty are jeopardised, he appears unable to avert the inevitable.

In recognising the thematic tropes which underpin the genre, Amini, working from his own script, has excelled in producing a feature to rival Minghella’s wonderful vision. The British director is now suitably recovered from the ignominy of being responsible for penning last year’s Keanu Reeves horror show, 47 Ronin. Instead, he shows off the panache which spurred him to write 2011’s Drive. January and Drive, admittedly, share little DNA beyond their lonely, placeless leading men but Amini has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of pivoting from the latter’s stylishly indulgent, though knowingly empty, neo-noir to something infinitely more rugged. 

Hitchcock echoes through the encroaching paranoia as Rydal, Colette and Chester slope off into the arid Cretan outback and Amini ably harnesses the duality that informs it all. As Janus, the Roman God of transitions from which the eponymous month takes its name, observed the cosmos with two faces, so too does the film rely on the dangers of opposing viewpoints, whether deliberate or otherwise. Wires are crossed, situations misunderstood and identities shed. By the finale, the truth is the most elusive thing of all.

‘There’s a surprise around every corner,’ says Chester, sagely. The summer’s first great film is surely one of them.

Friday 9 May 2014


Biopics have always occupied a particular corner of the cinematic genre. They can be noble, serious, forensically constructed and extremely long. There are good ones (Raging Bull), bad ones (J. Edgar) and downright ugly ones (Jobs). They are tricky, too. Even Michael Mann, perhaps the best pure cinema director alive, fumbled the task with Ali, a coldly distant study of boxing’s greatest showman.  

Obscure, crazed and occasionally tender, Frank is nothing like any of these. In truth, it barely falls into the category marked ‘biopic’. Inspired by the bizarre career of the late Chris Sievey, director Lenny Abrahamson uses the musician’s life as a rough guide rather than a closely followed map. In doing so he crafts a film which is at once a strangely affecting road movie and a depiction of skewed genius.

As a struggling musician in the early Eighties, Sievey’s decision to abandon his band, The Freshies, and try something new gave birth to Frank Sidebottom. Sidebottom was an unsettlingly warped alter-ego defined by his sharp suits, broad Mancunian accent and giant Max Fleischer-inspired, papier-mâché head. Neither his music nor his comedy would bring him great wealth or acclaim and he would die penniless in 2010. Yet, his creation — a grotesque, mildly subversive oddball — would secure him cult status and post-mortem cool. 

If anything, the head is Abrahamson's truest link between reality and fiction. In the title role (the name Sidebottom never comes up) Michael Fassbender moves his accent away from Manchester and places it somewhere between Killarney and Kansas, the muffling effect of the permanent, enormous, blue-eyed cranium turning his rich voice into a clipped monotone. Lithe and energetic, the Kerry actor appears to have a great time eschewing his leading man credentials in favour of a faceless, unpredictable man-child, vacillating between grounded practicalities — ‘I have a certificate,’ he intones, when challenged over the mask — and the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection. 

Fassbender sits happily at the centre of an increasingly deranged creative process, observed, with genuine bewilderment, by Domhnall Gleeson’s meek keyboardist, Jon. Floating through a dull life in his bland middle-class seaside town, Jon is a listless musician and a bored worker drone whose initially pathetic tweets punctuate the screen throughout. He is keen then to grasp an early chance encounter with Frank and his awkwardly-monikered band, The Soronprfbs. Before long, Jon is relocating to a remote Irish island for the recording of this curious group’s new album. 

Nothing is committed to tape until Frank is ready and to this end, with the aid of his inherited ‘nest egg’, Jon spends the next year in a verdant bedlam. More than a wide-eyed narrator, he emerges as a layered and quietly selfish antagonist, viewed with suspicious disdain by abrasive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and with benign indifference by Frank himself. The Soronprfbs’ music might charitably be described as surreal but the young man discerns inspiration beneath the din. 

Surreptitiously, he secures the band a place at Texas hipster circus South By Southwest and it is at this stage that the wheels truly come off. Gone are the aimless days of charmed lunacy, for Jon’s misunderstanding of what makes Frank tick is as profound as the frontman is complex. Whether or not the interloper is motivated by the desire to be rich and famous is unclear but he is certainly not on the same page as everyone else. The Soronprfbs are an eclectic bunch but each of them is in thrall to Frank’s musical proclivities; critical recognition and success do not feature much in their collective thinking. 

Where previously he was simply along for the ride, Jon takes control with disastrous results. By exploiting Frank’s vague desire to be ‘likeable’, he unwittingly stirs up the obvious mental illness that hovers over everything, a cloud which is, at first glance, amusing in an faintly obscene way. Frank and his good-natured manager Don (a restrained Scoot McNairy) share more than just a fondness for random sounds. Their personal demons — raw, unexplainable, unconnected to the clichéd darkness that Jon assumes to be their natural habitat — were containable in the isolated reverie of the island studio. In the focused scrutiny of the outside world, however, they break loose.

Frank never loses its light tone but little in the last reel is mined for laughs as Jon struggles to clean up after his clumsy excursion into treacherous waters. His fascination with the giant head borders on the morbid and so it comes as a great surprise when, in the wake of his psychological tipping-point, Frank’s human features are there for all to see. Robbed of his persona, he is a mere shell and, cleverly, Abrahamson shows a downcast Fassbender solely in profile until the end. Indeed, as the camera slowly works its way around to fully expose his gaunt visage, a returning sliver of confidence allows the real Frank to be properly recognised. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.