Director: Hossein Amini
Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan
Release Date: April 16th, 2014
Distributors: Studio Canal, Magnolia Pictures
Countries: USA, UK, France
Running time: 96 minutes
Best part: The immaculate scenery.
Worst part: The underwhelming love triangle.
Film noir, like many genres reminiscent of classic Hollywood, relies on several visual and thematic ingredients. Marked by alluring visuals, trench coats, and seductive femme fatales, the genre thrives today thanks to aspirational filmmakers. Keen to bring back Hollywood’s greatest motifs, The Two Faces of January is one such homage to film noir and all its charming prowess. However, whilst honouring the genre, this drama-thriller seeks to envelop and grapple with several other genres simultaneously.
The Two Faces of January, despite the impressive cast and sumptuous scenery, has slipped under the radar. Like a shadow dancing across black-and-white film reels, this feature’s motions and emotions match up to its all-powerful influences. Sweeping across the festival circuit, it’s strange how almost no one caught onto this intriguing chase-saga. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name, the narrative shares a handful of similarities with one of her most notorious works. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January tells a softly spoken parable about dirty deeds and picturesque landscapes. Set in 1962, the movie investigates the highest peaks and seediest alley-way-laden depths of Europe. We follow enthusiastic and amoral tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) as he attempts to start a meaningful existence within Athens’ momentous ruins. Ripping off, and occasionally seducing, young tourists, Rydal’s quaint lifestyle almost comes off as charming and enriching. However, his daydreams drift off over the horizon towards something more powerful. I may be delving into this a bit too much, for the movie says and does a lot less than it promises. However, alarmingly so, we sit alongside Rydal as he becomes infatuated with wealthy businessperson Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst).
It’s in one delectable moment, in which Rydal sees the couple wandering through the Acropolis of Athens, that he halts his ponderous lifestyle and sparks wondrous ideas. After introducing himself, Rydal even begins to picture their holiday schedule. The plot, kicking in shortly after the jaw-dropping opening scenes, takes several turns toward romantic-drama territory. With Rydal’s affection geared increasingly towards Colette, a love triangle begins to sizzle under the European sunlight. Sadly, this laboured start, defined by candle-lit double dates and forced character development, comes close to getting this twisted narrative off on the wrong foot. In fact, the love triangle is sorely under-utilised in this otherwise rich and decadent stand off. Soon enough, thanks to its tight and eloquent screenplay, this keep-you-guessing thriller steers toward its more exciting promises. With Rydal falling into the MacFarland’s sticky situation, the three of them embark on a daring escape from the law. Admittedly, this drama-thriller deserves to be stuck with the most overused and lugubrious of descriptions: Hitchcockian. Attempting to match the master filmmaker’s subtle touch and distinctive visual motifs, director Hossein Amini sticks close to everything we’ve seen countless times before. Despite his best efforts, Amini – having written actioners like Drive and Snow White & The Huntsman – fuses Hitchcock’s deft sensibilities with bombastic action-thriller tropes. Leaving the page for the camera, Amini mistakes a derivative and inconsistent style for resonant, slow-burn storytelling. With its pace more wave-like than Greece’s gold-and-aqua beaches, this drama-thriller becomes mind numbing and predictable well before the second half arrives.
“I’m sorry I disappointed you.” (Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), The Two Faces of January).
Fortunately, despite the stylistic flaws, The Two Faces of January smuggles several intensifying and immaculate parts into its sleek and pristine suitcase. As a sprawling romance between Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, the movie tackles its fun premise by delving into its three-character feud. In the spirit of classic Hollywood, this Europe-drenched story pits our well-dressed allies against themselves, gun-toting baddies, and the foreign labyrinth around them. Along the way, several sequences remain dialogue free. Puffing on cigarettes and honour codes, our characters look through one another as the clock ticks down. The tension even reaches breaking point early on, as Chester says of Rydal to Colette: “I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”. Gracefully, this tension-defying conflict, between these three power-starved anti-heroes, boosts the entertainment factor. Certain sequences, in which our characters come close to becoming recognised by security personnel, deliver the most memorable highlights. Indeed, thanks to everyone around him, Amini’s debut has looks to die for. Set against Europe’s most valuable and awe-inspiring cities, the cinematography, sound design, and mis-en-scene deliver something to write home about. Beyond the aesthetic wonders, our three A-listers bounce off this performance piece. Mortensen – known to impress first and attack his own movies later – excels as the relentless antagonist in this vicious concoction. Dunst delivers her most nuanced and likeable performance in a decade as the unpredictable squeeze. Meanwhile, following up his immense success with Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac is a magnetic force as the other side of the coin.
Keeping friends close and enemies closer, The Two Faces of January’s vigorous premise is on par with many of classic Hollywood’s shining lights. If anything, this drama-thriller will be seen as a commendable effort for our three charismatic and dexterous leads. The movie’s compelling visuals and tough-as-nails screenplay deliver several delights hidden around famous landmarks and decrepit streets. However, Amini’s first-time jitters stall an otherwise enlightening thrill-ride. Let’s hope his Hitchockian blues no longer chase him across Tinsel-town.