With The Two Faces of January, screenwriter Hossein Amini (who skilfully adapted the James Sallis existential pulp novel, Drive) swaps to the director’s chair to bring one of his favourite books by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train) to the big screen. The film is a love letter to the chase thrillers of the fifties and sixties: murder, suspicion, adultery all set in eye-catching locations, starring ridiculously good looking actors; all of them dressed in stylish clothes and somehow managing to make chain smoking look cool. While there’s nothing wrong with paying homage to what went before, you can’t just come up with the same old tropes and not add anything new. This is The Two Faces of January’s only problem, stopping a good film from being a memorable one.
Set in sixties Greece, Rydal (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac) is a tour guide, using his good looks and charm to trick college girls out of their money, who finds himself caught up in the lives of Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst). Discovering the McFarlands are not who they say they are, Rydal unwittingly ends up as an accessory, forced to join them as they travel to Crete and Istanbul in a bid to escape.
As you would expect, the three leads all give impressive performances. Mortensen has this gift of taking complicated, contradictory characters and making them totally believable (The Road, Eastern Promises), and he does the same here as Chester, who starts off as this flamboyant, charming man, until his mask slips. Becoming increasingly paranoid and desperate, his jealousy towards Rydal gets out of control. Chester is petty and spiteful; his answer to everything is to get drunk and lash out.
Oscar Isaac’s Rydal is the closest we get to a protagonist. When we first meet Rydal, all he is interested in is stealing as much money off Chester as he can, while also trying to talk Colette into bed. It’s not until events tragically spiral out of control that Rydal discovers he has a conscience. Isaac easily matches Mortensen in the acting stakes here, scenes between the two of them, Chester and Rydal struggling to control their hatred for each other, exuding slow-burning tension.
Usually in chase thrillers, especially those set around a love triangle, the female role asks the actress to look stunning, make sure her make-up is always perfect, and say her lines; she’s there to push the plot forward and that’s it. To Amini’s credit, he gives Dunst a lot more to do here, Colette discovering just what kind of man her husband is, but realising all too late. Like Rydal, Colette is weak in terms of morals, but you pity her because of how naïve she is, only now does she raise her head out of the sand.
The film is always stunning to look at. For most of The Two Faces of January, Marcel Zyskind fills each scene with bright Mediterranean light; it’s not until things begin to reach their inevitable conclusion that Zyskind lessens the colour onscreen, the majority of scenes in the third act set either in darkness or what colour you do see looks pale or natural. Every frame during a police chase through Istanbul resembles a work of art, Rydal and Chester dashing through dim alleyways, cafés, even a mill, giving us brief glimpses of intense colour before plunging both leads back into the dark.
Equally impressive is the film’s score, penned by Alberto Iglesias (The Kite Runner and The Constant Gardner being his most well-known work). Just like Amini, Iglesias is inspired by the globe-trotting thrillers of the fifties and sixties, the music brilliantly over-the-top, piling on the tension in each scene with bursts of short, quivering strings.
What stops The Two Faces of January from being one of the greats is that anyone who has seen an Alfred Hitchcock film, or any of the glamorous thrillers from that era (the audience Amini is aiming for), will know what’s going to happen. They’ll know that not everyone is going to make it to the credits, or that a private investigator will suddenly show up. By sticking to the traditions of these films, there are no surprises, the tension that Amini tries so hard to build is lacking. You could argue that Amini is simply following Patricia Highsmith’s novel, and if it had been translated to the big screen back when these films were popular, it would be hailed as a classic. If you compare The Two Faces of January to Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or Minghella’s more recent adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, it’s not quite up there. The Two Faces of January’s character-driven exploits, while entertaining enough, are run-of-the-mill compared to other thrillers.
The Two Faces of January is a successful, rose-tinted homage to the early Hollywood thrillers, but because it sticks so rigidly to the traits that audiences know so well, it’s nowhere near as exciting as it should be.
3 out of 5