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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: The Two Faces of January

First-time director Hossein Amini has been pushing for this film for over a decade. Following Anthony Minghella's excellent 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, one of the film's producers decided to pursue one of Highsmith's lesser-known novels, The Two Faces of January. Amini worked on the film, first as a writer, but after fifteen years, he had a chance to step up and direct his own script for the film.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are first introduced flirting cutely on the steps of the Parthenon, a pair of carefree, wealthy American tourists in Greece; Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is introduced scamming pretty tourists after refusing to return to America for his father's funeral. The trio eventually meet, have a lovely evening together, and then get bound together by an unexpected act of violence that forces all three to hide from the police while they wait for fake passports to help them leave the country. It's a simple hook, but Amini doesn't rush getting to the meat of the story; there's a lot of pleasure to be mined in watching Isaac play off the more worldly, more knowing Mortensen and Dunst. Hell, there's a lot of pleasure in just watching the group explore Greece. 

I initially wasn't sure what to expect from Amini, who wrote measured cult-hit thriller Drive but also wrote fantasy schlock 47 Ronin and Snow White and the Huntsman, but it seems like Amini is more in tune with Refn than Rinsch. The Two Faces of January is a relaxed wrong-man thriller, and if it lacks the urgency of Drive, it maintains its grim beauty and slow pace. Amini's instincts are warmer than Refn's, though, as so much of The Two Faces of January depends, both in its drama and in its plotting, heavily on the subdued passions roiling beneath the surface of the three leads.

Because of the focus on the emotional triangle that so changes these three lives - a common denominator with Ripley - the film relies heavily on its cast to build and sell the drama. But Amini overplays the relationship between Mortensen and Isaac, and severely underutilizes Dunst. This is a story of fathers and sons, and it has no time whatsoever for women, no matter how fascinatingly Oedipal the relationship may become. Indeed, the surrogate-father dynamic of the film is overplayed significantly, occasionally flirting with outright silliness as the climax draws near. But whenever the film threatens to spill out of control, Mortensen, Isaac, and Dunst manage to hold interest and keep their characters gripping and interesting. One particular late-film twist could have and perhaps should have sent the film spiraling away; it is to the credit of everyone involved that it actually gave Isaac and Mortensen their best scene together.

The Two Faces of January is, however, a fairly gorgeous film. Amini, working with cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, has crafted some absolutely beautiful imagery. Like many Highsmith books, The Two Faces of January follows Americans at the intersection between crime and privilege abroad in Europe, and Amini takes full advantage of the story's setting in Greece and Turkey. We spend time at the Parthenon, at an open air market, on Crete, in the back-alleys of Istanbul, and Amini and Zyskind have proven to be remarkably adept and bringing that beauty to the screen.

Despite its flaws, I did genuinely enjoy The Two Faces of January. It isn't playing in the same league, I think, as similar Highsmith adaptations like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, or Purple Noon, but it remains a gorgeously-shot wrong-man thriller with an immensely talented cast. Its problems are simple, and easy to overlook by anyone seeking a restrained, character-driven crime film. Amini's debut film is shockingly assured, both in its pacing and in its visuals. I'm very excited to see where his career takes him next.

The Two Faces of January is currently available to rent on demand on most major streaming services, including Amazon Instant. For our readers in the Atlanta area, it will be playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema for one week only starting on Friday, October 10th.
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