Film Review: ‘The Two Faces of January’

A sun-kissed adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name from Drive (2011) scribe Hossein Amini, The Two Faces of January (2014) has dapper suits and glorious Greek vistas in abundance, but is found surprisingly lacking in both psychological complexity and genuine cat-and-mouse thrills. Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac and Viggo Mortensen form the uneasy love triangle at the narrative’s core, with Mortensen in particular treading over old ground as a seemingly devoted husband with a shadowy past. Something of a fish out of water at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Amini’s debut packs plenty of style, but always feels like an inferior partner piece to Highsmith’s own Ripley series.

As part of a hard-earned European vacation, well-to-do American Chester (Mortensen) and his trophy wife Colette (Dunst) find themselves in a remarkably clean sixties Athens to take in its ancient sights. While wandering aimlessly around the Acropolis the couple are approached by Rydal (Isaac), a Greek-speaking fellow countryman who’s spent the last few years working as a tour guide following the death of his father. Drawn to Chester and Colette (for reasons as yet unknown, aside from the obvious – they’re loaded), Rydal accepts an invitation to join the MacFarlands at dinner. However, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems. When Rydal visits the couple at their hotel to return a piece of jewellery dropped by Colette, he founds himself an accomplice at the scene of a desperate crime.

The first half-hour of Amini’s good-looking potboiler retains interest well, teasing us with Chester’s nefarious past dealings and Rydal’s ambiguous motives for helping these two stranded strangers. Unfortunately, as layer upon layer of intrigue is gradually stripped away, what’s left in the middle begins to look evermore unappealing. It’s the Isaac-Mortensen show, if truth be told, with Dunst largely relegated to looking pretty in period frocks and huffing petulantly every time their plan of escape hits a snag (and there are certainly enough along the way). The Two Faces of January’s psychosexual potential comes and goes, flirting with Colette and Rydal’s attraction before shrinking away when things start to get steamy. In the hands of a Cronenberg, say, sex would play an integral part in the group dynamic. As it is, however, the streetwise chancer seems more interested in Chester’s ‘assets’ than anything else. Again, a bolder, more seasoned provocateur may have explored this further.

Amini’s unwaveringly old-fashioned approach to the construction of his directorial debut ultimately proves detrimental, with The Two Faces of January neither glamorous nor prestigious enough to compete with the classic European-set Hollywood thrillers of yesteryear. Its central triumvirate, though suitably starry, are hardly enough to hang an entire film upon, and Isaac in particular looks half the actor he was in the Coens’ folk gem Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) (in fairness, he’d already wrapped on the former before shooting began on the latter). Amini has proven his narrative acumen before and will undoubtedly do so again, but his inaugural stint behind the camera offers only fleeting glimpses of Highsmith’s seductive, satirical prose that old hands such as Clément, Hitchcock and Minghella have so notably put to good use.

Daniel Green