Directed by: Hossein Amini.
Written by: Hossein Amini based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Chester MacFarland), Oscar Isaac (Rydal), Kirsten Dunst (Colette MacFarland), Daisy Bevan (Lauren), David Warshofsky (Paul Vittorio), Yigit Özsener (Yahya).
The Two Faces of January plays like a classic Hollywood thriller – and I mean that in the best way possible. The film is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and takes place in 1962 – and I think it’s safe to say that this is a film that very well could have made at that time. It is made with skill and precision by writer-director Hossein Amini – and contains two excellent performances by Viggo Mortenson and Oscar Isaac. It does precisely what it sets out to do – and if it isn’t the most ambitious film in the world, that’s okay because it works very well on its own terms.
The film opens in Greece, where an American couple – Chester and Colette MacFarland (Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst) are on vacation. They have a lot of money – Chester works in investments, and is apparently very good at his job. The spot another American – Rydal (Isaac) who works as a tour guide – mainly targeting attractive, young, female tourists, who he charms, and then takes advantage of – scamming them out of a few dollars here and there. We immediately suspect that he will set his sights on the MacFarlands, and try and take advantage of them. But the movie doesn’t play out quite like that – Rydal isn’t quite the scam artist we think he is, and Chester isn’t the innocent American business man we think he is. Soon, the two men have to dispose of a body, and then the trio need to get out of town. The two men circle each other – and we’re never quite sure if they are allies or enemies – mainly because neither of them are so sure either – and we’re never quite sure where Colette’s loyalties lie either.
The film is beautiful to look at. In many ways, this is a film noir – but it’s one when much of the action takes place in the sun drenched, beautiful countryside in Greece – not in the dark, shadowy back corners like many noirs do. It is every inch a Highsmith story – who’s most famous creation was Tom Ripley – a charming, cultured sociopath and serial killer, who motives are always murky. That describes Chester, and perhaps to a lesser extent Rydal as well.
Mortenson has always excelled at playing characters like Chester – those who appear to be one thing, but whose charming surface masks so much more darkness (or sometimes, vice versa). He would have excelled as a studio player back in the day, because he’s able to do so much by doing so little. Isaac matches him as Rydal – or nearly does anyway, his character isn’t as well defined – and in many ways resembles a younger version of Chester – which is precisely why Chester doesn’t trust him – he knows who he is. The flaw in the movie is that Dunst doesn’t get much of a character play – she’s just another part of the beautiful backdrop that the main action plays out on. She does what is required of her, but in a movie where the motives of the two men remain murky because they are complicated, her motivations remain murky, and it’s more likely because her character is underwritten.
This is the first film as a director by Amini – who has been working as a screenwriter for years now. He made a good choice of material for a first time directing effort. The film is clean, cold, calculating - and most importantly doesn’t try to be anything greater than what it is. Many first time directors try to do too much – Amini keeps The Two Faces of January humming on its rather modest scale.
That is what holds The Two Faces of January back from being a great film – it is little more than its charming, beautiful surface. There is no deeper meaning here. So the achievement of The Two Faces of January is rather modest – but it’s still an achievement. There is nothing wrong with making a pitch perfect, old school genre film – and that is what The Two Faces of January is.