by Matt Levine
In an age when every thriller has to have some shocking twist up its sleeve and most plot machinations are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a movie in which suspense is generated primarily by watching people interact with and inveigle each other. This is one of many old-school pleasures derived from The Two Faces of January, a leisurely but compelling thriller that doesn’t quite deserve the term Hitchcockian, though its period setting of 1962 and its source author (Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel Strangers on a Train) might suggest as much. In the sun-dappled locales of Athens and Crete, two men and a beautiful woman navigate a treacherous web of murder and deceit, outfitted in stylish linen suits and designer dresses that allow the movie to steep in its luxurious atmosphere. When that trio of characters is personified by Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac, it’s hard to bemoan the film’s problems with pacing and lack of genuine chills—this ensemble is captivating to watch, and their smoldering tensions are conveyed with admirable subtlety by first-time director Hossein Amini (screenwriter of Drive and The Wings of the Dove, among others).
Director: Hossein Amini
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo, Tom Sternberg
Writers: Hossein Amini, Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind
Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Jon Harris
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Özsener
Premiere: February 11, 2014 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 26, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
The Two Faces of January isn’t Patricia Highsmith’s most thrilling novel—especially compared to her series of books featuring the character of Tom Ripley—but it does convey her favorite themes of malleable identity, the sins of parents revisiting their offspring, and how easily loyalty can shift into betrayal. A wealthy American stock trader named Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) brings his dashing young wife Colette (Dunst) to Athens, seemingly another destination on a long European trip filled with posh hotels and elegant bistros. While there, they run into another American named Rydal Keener (Isaac), a Yale dropout who hightailed it to Greece in order to escape a father he detests (and who died several weeks prior, though Rydal refuses to return home for the funeral). It’s clear from the beginning that Colette and Rydal lust after each other, though the film mischievously refuses to answer whether or not they have sex.
The hard-drinking, inherently jealous Chester soon discovers that an American private detective has also tracked him to Athens, hired by a number of stock traders he had swindled back in the States. During a brawl in the hotel bathroom, Chester accidentally kills the detective, at which point Rydal inopportunely intrudes. Motivated more by his lust for Colette than his greed for Chester’s money (though both play a part), Rydal helps them abscond to a small town in Crete, where a Greek friend of Rydal’s offers to procure new American passports for the MacFarlands. But of course, in the manner of the best thrillers, all does not go as planned: Rydal’s shiftiness, Chester’s alcohol-fueled jealousy, and Colette’s shifting attractions doom the three characters to an unpleasant fate.
Amini’s script remains faithful to Highsmith’s novel for the first half, though Colette’s possible adultery is more explicit in the book. The latter half of the film, however, draws Chester and Rydal closer together, evoking a quasi-father-son relationship even though (or probably because) they both despise each other. Whereas Highsmith’s novel turns into a cat-and-mouse thriller that jets from Athens to Paris to Marseilles, Amini decides to turn their antagonism into a metaphor for the estrangement between parents and children, in which feelings of disappointment and resentment take on murderous manifestations. Although Amini’s tragic theme of familial hatred removes the film of much of its genre thrills, it also makes it multifaceted and surprisingly interesting to contemplate, especially when the film seems on the surface to be little more than a pleasant retro diversion.
Thankfully, the movie’s themes are snuck in with a light touch rather than hammered home with condescending obviousness. The parallels between Chester and Rydal are suggested from the very first images: as Rydal leads a group of swooning American women on a tour of the Parthenon, Chester acts as an unofficial tour guide for his wife, the two men both overly confident in their entitlement to the world around them. What’s more, Rydal’s opening historical anecdote relates the tale of Theseus, who forgets to raise a triumphant mast on his ship and thus drives his grief-stricken father Aegeis to suicide. The audience is aware throughout the film that Chester reminds Rydal of his late father, and a conversation near the end of the film seems to posit Chester as a bleak future version of Rydal, after he’s made irrevocable mistakes and his illusions have been dashed. The movie’s (and the book’s) title seems to be a reference to the two-faced Roman god Janus (an example of muddled mythology, considering the film takes place in Greece), who represented both beginnings and endings, war and peace, the future and the past—most directly in this case, Chester’s volatile past (which has made him the self-loathing, distrustful man that he is) and Rydal’s undecided future. These themes are all implicit, hinted at by dialogue rather than exposited clearly, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it makes us work for some of its more satisfying emotional connections.
Of course, The Two Faces of January can be enjoyed on an altogether different level—as a breezy, brightly-colored thriller populated with beautiful faces and exotic locales. As a straightforward thriller, the film is solid but predictable: as soon as the three main characters are thrust into this intense scenario, it’s fairly clear where the story is headed. Amini includes a few overt stylistic touches (especially effective are a wild handheld POV shot during a drunken jaunt through a small Cretan town and a number of unexpected close-up inserts), but mostly he relies on the intrigue of the story, the strength of the performances, and the moody soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias (doing his best Bernard Herrmann impression). The unobtrusive style is quietly effective but ultimately timid, surprisingly outmatched by the emotional intensity of the characters’ tense relationships. This imbalance is perfectly represented by the end of the film, a foot chase through Istanbul that’s exciting only in a predictable, workmanlike way, though it’s followed by a deathbed confession that packs an unexpected wallop.
In other words, The Two Faces of January is one of those rare thrillers that’s more poignant than it is exhilarating—a welcome change of pace for those who enjoy more character-driven suspense. Much of the film seems intentionally pitched on a modest scale: though it’s set in the past and in a foreign country, the action is simple and its focus is intimately directed at three protagonists. But those seemingly straightforward genre trappings allow Amini and his actors to dig into these characters, who grow more intriguing even as their treacheries follow a well-trodden path. Maybe The Two Faces of January is more the triumph of Mortensen, Isaac, and Dunst than that of Amini (though he certainly plays a hand in calibrating their performances): all three actors inhabit the roles with remarkable versatility, shuttling from joy to misery in a matter of moments. Mortensen in particular creates a terrifying tempest of a man, heartbreaking in his loneliness and vicious in his destruction. In a perfect cinematic world, their sympathetic performances and indelible characters would be wedded to visceral excitement and breathtaking suspense, but I’ll take what The Two Faces of January gives us: a swift if unsurprising story of murder and jealousy played out on recognizably human terrain.