Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Rydal (Isaac) is an American working in 1962 Athens as a tour guide, using his fluency in Greek and knowledge of the exchange rate to scam tourists (particularly young women) out of money. By a chance encounter he meets a mysterious American couple, the charismatic Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Dunst), who in particular catches Rydal’s eye. Rydal acts as tour guide for the couple and has dinner with them, but in getting closer to the couple he learns more of their secrets, which eventually leads to a murder in a hotel. Now the three of them are forced on the run, but with each holding back secrets and the seeming escalating attraction between Rydal and Colette causing increasing double crossing, tension between all three mounts as the law closes in on them.
Talk about potential: being based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), set in a plethora of exotic locations and having three charismatic and good looking leading actors surely provides the basis for a great little thriller. Even the extensive marketing blurb on the poster is basically saying; “it involves these people who did this, and these things were good, so this film must a be great!” Though it is of course the debut directorial effort from the screenwriter of 47 Ronin, though I am sure Hossein Amini, like the rest of us, wants to forget about that!
Well, there is certainly much to be admired about The Two Faces of January: Amini proves to have a great visual eye behind the camera, with his lense and Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography capturing the sweltering heat and tranquil beauty of the Mediterranean perfectly. The scorching sunlight can truly be felt in the sweat on our characters faces and the lightly coloured clothing they permanently wear. The beautiful and slightly mysterious locations of Athens, Crete and Istanbul are shot beautifully and certainly add to film’s atmosphere. Likewise, Alberto Iglesias’ score sometimes feels a little generic, but fits in perfectly with the unashamedly and very much intentional old school slow burn thriller style of The Two Faces of January which is the perfect stylistic choice and when seen on the big screen, the film looks and sounds magnificent.
Likewise the performances are very strong, as all three give very charismatic turns and through the subtext they give off in facial expressions and body language keep us intrigued; it is always obvious there is something they are holding back from both the other characters and us the viewer. Kirsten Dunst has the slightly raw deal as her character is a little under written and therefore less defined, but she still does an excellent job with what she is given. Mortensen and Isaac have proved in the past they can make potentially unlikeable characters intriguing, and with their excellent performances do just that.
It is just as well for the excellent performances, as without that it may be hard to find the narrative of The Two Faces of January particularly engaging, as it may have all the style in abundance, but never has the substance to match. Though there is always an element of mystery, there is never genuine suspense or intrigue as it seems Amini seems very unwilling to take any risks and always plays it quite safe with narrative developments and character revelations. I have no idea how much (if anything) has been changed from the novel, and though the description may be well and beautifully written making the story very intriguing on the page, on the screen there is always something lacking.
If The Two Faces of January were a fairground ride, it would be one of those more low key rides that are always very enjoyable and but do not never inject any feeling of fear or adrenaline, it is a film that is never less than entertaining, but just never uses its potential to truly grip or engage. I of course would never encourage a film to have stupid twists for the sake of it, but in the end it just feels that Amini thinks all the (admittedly excellent) style is enough to cover up and make up for a rather flat narrative.
When the narrative develops into its final third, there may be an intention to make it a truly intense finale. However, just like the rest of the film, it is well put together but just feels a tad predictable and a slight missed opportunity. Though at least like other thrillers it doesn’t have a genuinely tense build up and damp squib of an ending that undermines everything, for it’s very lean 96 minutes, The Two Faces of January never outstays its welcome and is certainly consistent.
The Two Faces of January is a classic case of style over substance: it is beautifully shot, very well acted and contains a solid (if ultimately very conventional) plot that makes for a very entertaining and always watchable little yarn of a thriller, but it never capitalises on its true potential.