The Two Faces Of January
Director: Hossein Amini.
Screenplay: Hossein Amini.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan, James Sobol Kelly.
“I’m sorry I disappointed you”
Whether or not you have read any of the psychological thrillers of novelist Patricia Highsmith is neither here nor there but as film fans you will no doubt be familiar with the adaptations of her work. The most notable being Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, René Clément’s Plein Soleil or Anthony Minghella’s American remake of the same story in The Talented Mr. Ripley. A knowledge of these films will give you an idea of the suspense contained within her prose. However, Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini has unearthed a lesser known gem in The Two Faces Of January and his translation from page to screen delivers one of the best and most accomplished thrillers of the year.
The MacFarlands – Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring Europe and find themselves visiting the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It’s here that they befriend Rydal (Oscar Isaac), the local tour guide. Rydal also happens to be a hustler, though, and is automatically drawn the glamourous and wealthy couple. However, on a particular evening Rydal witnesses Chester commit a vicious and violent act which draws all three of them into a journey from Athens to Crete to Istanbul with a battle of wits and jealousy consuming them all.
What’s immediately striking about this film is the sumptuous cinematography by Marcel Zyskind and his ability to transport us back to early 1960’s Greece and his wonderful eye in capturing the gorgeous locations. Moving on from the screenwriting duties of The Wings Of The Dove, Drive and 47 Ronin, Hossein Amini now sits behind the camera and makes a marvellous directorial debut, as if it was a talent he’d had along. He has a deft handling of the material and genuinely captures the authenticity of an old fashioned Hollywood movie. It’s simply stunning to behold. However, the characters at the centre of this serpentine mystery do not reflect the beauty onscreen. That’s not say that they let the side down. Far from it. They just happen to be dark, highly duplicitous individuals and the three leads in Mortensen, Isaac and Dunst play them to perfection. They all deliver outstanding work and without such skilful performers, the subtlety of their twisted, three-dimensional characters might not have had the desired impact without the command they have of their roles. Granted, Dunst’s Colette has less to work with but adds just the right amount of suspicion in her complicitness to the shady goings on of Mortensen’s charismatic Chester and Isaac’s Rydal has such a controlled manner that it’s hard to read who’s being truthful or trustworthy at any given time. It’s this interplay with hidden motivations that raises the film into a superior cat-and-mouse thriller and also cleverly references the title of the film itself; both men have entirely their own agendas, one looking to the future and one looking to the past much like the mythological Roman god Janus (January): “the god of gates and doorways, transitions, beginnings, passages and endings, and as such is usually portrayed with two faces”.
As outstanding as the performances are, however, a lot of credit must be given to Amini for his ability to accentuate and know when to hold onto a moment; a word; a glance or facial expression which always keeps the audience at a requisite distance. Betrayal is the name of the game here and don’t be surprised if you find yourself shifting closer and closer to the edge of your seat as the game plays out.
If I had any gripes (and really there is only one – that some may not even mind so much) is that I felt a little underwhelmed at the films denouement. Just when it needed a payoff and final killer twist, it failed to deliver. However, the real payoff is in witnessing the tangled web of three morally ambiguous swindlers, each desperate to outdo the other.
Patricia Highsmith’s material has always made for involving and highly deceitful entertainment and in the hands of Hossein Amini, and his trio of superb actors, it would seem that that flame is still burning and that films of this type keep the twisted Hitchcockian spirit very much alive in modern cinema. An excellent delivery by all involved.
Trivia: Hossein Amini had wanted to adapt and direct Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel for 15 years before finally getting the go-ahead from production companies Studio Canal and Working Title.