Crime fiction writer Patricia Highsmith’s work has provided a rich source for film since Hitchcock first tapped the vein back in 1951 with Strangers on a Train. Her novel The Two Faces of January has more recently been adapted as a labour of love screenwriter Hossein Amini, trying his hand at directing this time around. from all accounts Amini’s script is somewhat simpler and less transparent than the book, but this allows more room for the psychological aspects to play out on film. As such, he places much responsibility on the actors, who were fortunately able to collaborate with him on their parts. Amini, seeming much more experienced than someone on a feature debut, emphasises elements of the traditional psychological thriller here, as he has with his other scripts, namely Shanghai (2010) and Drive (2011). What I love about this film is that it’s something of a throwback – had it been shot in black and white and featured a few silhouettes it could almost be mistaken for a classic adult thriller. While it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of a Hitchcockian drama, it certainly makes an effort.
The film really only has three characters, which suits the story perfectly. Chester MacFarland, played by Viggo Mortensen, and his wife Colette, Kirsten Dunst, have been holidaying in Europe, unable to return home thanks to Chester’s business model – investment scamming. Rydal, Oscar Isaac, is doing some scamming of his own as a tour guide who is extra friendly towards rich American girls. Rydal takes an interest in the couple, his wealth and her beauty, volunteering his services to show them around Greece. Everything goes downhill after a private investigator confronts Chester in the interest of some angry clients. They have a tussle, the PI dies rather accidentally, and they all have to run. From then on a lifetime of bad karma continues to be visited upon Chester and the others. We get the sense that Chester always has some sort of plan, but his heavy drinking and the increasing resistance from his wife causes the threads to unravel.
Mortensen takes on the cleverly charming, yet reprehensible antihero Chester with class. He delivers a performance worthy of the golden age of psychological thrillers. With the aid of Amini’s script we feel fear and pity for this dodgy character, in a cathartic sense. As the doted but independent thinking wife Dunst embodies the character of Colette, yet doesn’t nail all the lines. However, there seems a real connection between her and Chester. As the situation unravels she throws more glances Rydal’s way, something which pushes Chester towards total instability. Isaac himself is intriguing as Rydal, who is cunning but somewhat conflicted, and generally great to watch.
While the story and performances are of high quality, from a stylistic viewpoint there is nothing that impressive. The occasional day-for-night shot is a little noticeable and the ’60s passports are apparently wrong, among other little things. That said, the period makeup and costuming is beautiful, and Greece is a charming setting. The editing and camera work are fluid and don’t intrude, the downside being they aren’t particularly interesting. The score, from Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias, The Constant Gardener and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, features a good many strings and is vaguely reminiscent of a bygone Hollywood era. However, while probably intentionally so, it is not of the comforting variety.
On The Two Faces of January Amini has used great source material to good effect. It really is reminiscent of another era of filmmaking, one that is rarely matched from a narrative perspective, at least not in this vein of drama. The actors give solid performances too, taking a fair bit of responsibility on their few shoulders. The undoubtedly talented Mortensen certainly left me wanting to see more of him in the near future. While as a whole the production lacks a bit of style, the substance is there, which seems to be the main focus. Admittedly, the end few scenes didn’t match the bleak emotional level of the first hour or so of the film, but the ending proves satisfying enough. While there’s not a lot of rewatchability here it is definitely worth a look if dramatic thrillers are your thing.