The Two Faces of January is the latest feature film from director Hossein Amini, whose previous works include 2011 hit Drive and 2012 blockbuster Snow White and the Huntsman. The success of both these films has led to increased levels of interest in his latest work. Set in the early 1960s, the film gets off to a somewhat shaky start when Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortenson) waltzes around Athens in his panama hat spouting cheesy lines to his younger wife Collete (Kirsten Dunst.) There is an air of 1950s film noir even at this early point, but unfortunately the dialogue also seems like it would be more at home in the films of that era.
The story picks up, though, with the appearance of Rydal (Oscar Isaac) a brooding and mysterious American who is working in Athens as a tour guide, making most of his money by scamming tourists. We learn little of his history, other than the fact that his father has just died and Rydal didn’t attend the funeral. But it is this intriguing newcomer’s attraction to Collette, and his fascination with Chester’s wealth and sophistication, that gets the plot going in this twisting and turning thriller.
Following a double date with the MacFarland’s, Rydal finds Collette’s bracelet in the back of his taxi and attempts to return it to her at the couple’s hotel. While he is in the lobby, he is unaware that a debt-collecting private detective is upstairs with Chester, about to provoke an altercation that will quickly take a sinister turn. Finding Chester dragging a seemingly unconscious man along the hotel corridor, Rydal then realises that there is more to his new friend’s story when they take the man into his room and find photos of the couple littered across his desk. Chester admits that he is in debt and that this man has come to find him. He asks Rydal to help him and his wife escape. Assuming that the man is only unconscious, Rydal does not realise that he is becoming an accomplice to murder when he agrees to help them.
What follows is an hour or so of tightly plotted and well written tension as the magnitude of events becomes clear to all involved and the burgeoning sexual tension between Colette and Rydal begins to play on the elder Chester’s mind. Set against the backdrop of some beautiful Greek islands, this section of the film feels slick and effortless, with acting to match from Isaac and Dunst. This is not Mortenson’s best performance, though. He never seems to fully recover from his slightly hackneyed and clichéd lines in the opening section. For a while, this does not cause too many issues as the stress and strain on the three main characters increases incrementally and results in similar feelings in the audience. As this recently formed trio search for ever more isolated areas of Greece in which to lay low, it becomes clear that they are never going to find a place to hide from the infatuation, jealousy, and paranoia that is rife within their own ranks.
This excellent hour of filmmaking is brought to a swift and shocking conclusion by a surprising confrontation in the catacombs of some Greek ruins. A fantastically directed scene here suggests that the film is coming to a climax, and there seems to only really be one possible outcome at this point. But, in a film that has so far dealt with its twists and turns in a smooth and nuanced manner, we now begin to see a somewhat faltering and long-winded conclusion.
A game of back and forth begins between the protagonists, and at times it seems as though it will never stop. There are four or five occasions in this final half hour when it seems that all logic would suggest the film should end. Whether the filmmakers were staying true to Patricia Highsmith’s novel, or whether they just couldn’t resist twist after twist, is not clear, but sadly this section, and the increasingly hammy acting from Mortenson, do detract a little from what came before. Once the film finally draws to an end in Istanbul, the plot turns aren’t as surprising as they once were, and the shocks are never as shocking as what happened in the catacombs.
Despite these issues, the overarching feeling at the film’s end is probably that this is a good film with flaws, rather than a bad film with a few highlights. Oscar Isaac continues to show potential following his recent leading role in Inside Llewyn Davis and Dunst delivers a mature portrayal which differs wildly from her famous role in the Spiderman movies. And, although The Two Faces of January may never match the thrills and originality of Amini’s previous hit Drive, the hour or so for which this film is at its best is an hour of edge-of-the-seat excitement, surprises, and believable twists. All shot among stunning scenery. It’s just a shame that hour is sandwiched between two sections that are much less satisfying.