After a rather mixed career in screenwriting, ranging from the multi-award-winning The Wings of the Dove (1997) to the abysmal 47 Ronin (2013), Hossein Amini makes his directorial debut in this decent thriller. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, The Two Faces of January blends elements of Greek mythology with a neo-noir nihilism, creating a sense of nebulous morality in the face of cruel human actions.
Aside from the gorgeously rustic Greek landscapes, there is little that is remarkable about Amini’s film. What we find is a by-the-books crime drama, with obvious twists and standard 1960s noir sensibilities. Con-artist Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) tour Greece in a seemingly innocent escape from the pressures of life in the United States. This peace is thrown into turmoil when they meet tour guide and petty thief Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who is instantly attracted to Colette and makes it his goal to steal her away from her husband, using tricks he employs to scam tourists as an excuse to seduce Colette, playing with her hands and wrists intimately under the pretext of affixing jewelry. Though this may seem to be a war between two rivals over a clearly objectified woman, a struggle paralleled by the exchange of a gold bracelet between the two men, as with most thrillers, even Colette has her share of misdeeds. However, as many films have said before, “you can’t run away from your past”: after finding Chester dragging a dead private detective to his hotel room, Rydal becomes embroiled in the couple’s attempt to flee the country, all the while desperately trying to win Colette’s heart without provoking her husband to a vicious jealousy.
As expected from a film concerning love rivals, the intrigue stems from the relationship between the two men, not from their connections with Colette. The arguments and physical closeness of Chester and Rydal are intended to mimic a hostile father-son relationship. Rydal’s bond with his own father was strained to say the least; his face darkens whenever the subject of parentage is mentioned. Perhaps Rydal’s attempts to take Colette away from Chester are symbolic of a vain effort to save his mother or a sister from an intelligent albeit violent man, or perhaps this is merely a film which revels in excessive Freudian imagery.
The father-son duality is reinforced through continual references to the Minotaur myth. It is no surprise that the film’s early crescendo takes place in a labyrinthine ruin in Crete as Rydal takes on the role of Theseus against the monstrous Chester; the crumbling ruins serve as a constant reminder of the eroded familial ties which are present not only in reality, but in myth as well. Mythological equivalents aside, some comparisons are driven home bluntly, by such means as a lingering shot on a mural of a bull, insultingly removing any sense of subtlety. Chester even goes as far as to declare “I looked up to my father like he was a god” before stating outright that his father’s actions destroyed any belief in gods and monsters, leading to his own cynical view that one should always seek pleasures, even in spite of another’s pain.
It is a pity that the film’s tension only begins at the halfway mark, with the first fifty minutes dedicated to an unconvincing love story. The second half shows just how capable both Motensen and Isaac are at portraying very bitter characters, ironically one of the film’s saving graces. The other is the beautiful Greek vistas and the very subtle camerawork during tense scenes; close-ups isolate Chester from Rydal and Colette, whilst using very slight focus shifts to emphasise multiple characters or objects in very short takes. In all, The Two Faces of January is an acceptable debut that may develop in future into commendable crime thrillers.