The Two Faces of January
The directorial debut from the writer of Drive luxuriates in 1960s Greece.
As a screenwriter, Hossein Amini's name has graced successful book-to-film adaptations of thriller Drive, romance The Wings of the Dove and drama Jude, so seeing the scribe make his directorial debut with his own version of Patricia Highsmith's The Two Faces of January is far from surprising. The perfect storm of themes and styles exists in a story wholly suited to the first-time filmmaker's penchant for flawed characters and psychological developments, as set in the golden labyrinthine delights of Greece in the early 1960s.
Forming a troika of trouble, sweet-talking, swindling tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) meets wealthy American Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), amidst Athens' famed Acropolis. He brands them an easy mark and they're wary of his overt charms, yet they all quickly — albeit tentatively — warm to each other's company. Their respective first impressions prove devious when the MacFarlands' past resurfaces. Soon, everyone is seemingly on the same side and on the run, but deception still reigns in their web of love, lies and larceny.
The film's moniker references the Roman god for whom the titular month is named, typically depicted as having a pair of heads — one looking to the past, one to the future. Parallels with the duo of strong-willed men at the movie's centre are obvious; however, that doesn't make them any less effective. Both visually and narratively, Amini cloaks his dual duelling leads in shadows that question their allegiances and motivations. With a languid pace, he ponders their connection and divergence as they continue to clash and contrast. Are they bound by more than bad choices, inopportune circumstances and a shared affection for Colette?
Selling the constant tone of suspicious questioning is an excellent cast aptly pitched to explore the failings of their protagonists. It shows that Amini and Isaac have worked together previously, their pairing continuing to create rich, resonant characters. Likewise successful is Isaac's match with Mortensen and Dunst, with the film ever the tight three-hander. The former is finessed even as he slowly frazzles, while the latter is given a more assured role than much of the rest of her resume has been built upon.
Highsmith's works have earned cinema incarnations before, most notably Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tense and intricate, paranoid and precise, similarities seethe through a feature that looks as exquisite as its tale proves smoothly unsettling. It may all build to a finale seen before in idea and execution, but there's no doubting the film's satisfying manoeuvring and old-fashioned refinement.
Read our interview with The Two Faces of January costume designer Steven Noble about developing the film's dreamy, 1960s Greek Isles look here.
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