Film review: THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, from Built For Speed

Attractively shot atmospheric thriller The Two Faces of January owes a considerable debt to films of the past. It’s filled with Hitchcockian paranoia and Bernard Herman-esque music, it takes place in a European setting reminiscent of Agatha Christie film adaptations and like The Talented Mr Ripley, it sees a strange and ambitious young man invade the lives of attractive and wealthy American tourists.  The similarities to Ripley are not surprising, though, as The Two Faces of January is an adaptation from the novel by Ripley author Patricia Highsmith.  Although it evokes other works, The Two Faces of January is, fortunately, not so derivative as to be completely distracting.

The wealthy Americans here are financial advisor Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Collette (Kirsten Dunst) who are touring Greece in 1962.  There, a cocky young tour guide and small time con-artist Rydal (Oscar Isaac) inveigles himself into their lives. When Chester accidentally kills a man pursuing him over a shonky business deal, Rydal as the only witness and as someone with underground connections suddenly becomes the Americans’ greatest ally.  Although Rydal goes out of his way to help Chester and Collette evade authorities and escape Greece, tension, suspicion and jealousy constantly fester between the two men.

While some film-makers might have tried to turn this scenario into a nail biting adventure, Hossein Amini, in his debut feature as director, instead opts for a slow-burn psychological thriller.  This approach mostly works with Amini effectively capturing the growing jealousy and hostility between Chester and Rydal but he doesn’t elicit the necessary tension to hold our interest during slower patches.  Those raised on hyperkinetic CGI-driven action/adventures will be mentally pushing a fast forward button at various places in this film.

The Two Faces of January features stunning and exotic settings including ancient Greek ruins and teeming Istanbul streets but this is not an epic travelogue or road movie, the emphasis here is on the dynamic between the leads.  All three are excellent with Mortensen the standout as he convincingly mixes decency, arrogance and vengefulness.  Kirsten Dunst is luminous as always and infuses the character of Collette with nuances that avoid her becoming just another damsel in distress even though an underwritten role tones down the sexual voraciousness she displayed in the novel and prevents her character from being as compelling as it should have been.  Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac, who has a brooding intensity and menacing smirk reminiscent of Javier Bardem, makes Rydal the perfect foil to Mortensen’s stoic waspy McFarland.

Given the possibilities of the premise, a more intense and exciting film could have come from Highsmith’s novel and in the end Two Faces of January feels a little underwhelming.  Still, the exotic settings and psychological game playing between the characters provide plenty of beguiling pleasures.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Hossein Amini.

Release date: 19th June 2014.

Running time: 96 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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