THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY Review

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about The Two Faces of January, but that doesn't make it a pointless experience. In fact, it is rather refreshing in the sense that it knows what it is and takes pride in accomplishing what it sets out to do fairly well. It is a film set in the early 1960's that doesn't overly glorify the day and age it takes place, but rather insists on the time period for the aura though the tone of the film feels closer to that of a 40's drama/romance. Everything we see unfold here is standard within that type of film and within the genre we know we are nestling into, yet the inherent excitement that comes with the engaging premise consistently manages to entertain. It is when watching a movie such as this that one begins to take into consideration how well a film works within the restrictions of its classification and judge its success on that and not simply on what statement it might be trying to make. In talking specifically about The Two Faces of January we are taken into a world of yesteryear where the politics weren't politics, but agendas disguised by adventure and if you don't know any better that's all you have to take it as. Though I'm sure Patricia Highsmith's 1964 novel from which this is adapted has a level of deeper meaning akin to the time in which she wrote it as well as alluding to possible themes someone such as myself, raised in the modern world with little reference to older lifestyles, will not pick up on I was still able to have a fun time watching things unfold. This is a thriller in the most stylish sense of the word and despite the fact that by the time the conclusion comes around we will feel it was all vaguely familiar one can still appreciate it for what it brought to the table while it was on. Like I said, this isn't necessarily anything new or refreshing in any sense, but it is comforting in that it is reliable and is constructed beautifully with top notch performances from some of today's more serious-minded actors elevating the material to even more efficient enjoyment.      

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and Rydal (Oscar Isaac)
take in the sites in The Two Faces of January.
Written for the screen and directed by Hossein Amini, in his directorial debut no less, The Two Faces of January revolves around Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), who are seemingly holidaying in Athens, though in reality Chester might have found it necessary to get out of the States for a while after a few of his business dealings went south. Serving as a tour guide, also in Athens, is Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac) who is somewhat of a mystery to us as he clearly looks to have a con artist side to him, but is rather genuine in his dealings with others. Chester notices the sideways glances from Rydal as they walk the length of the Parthenon and later at lunch when Rydal has managed to treat one of his tourists to a meal she will end up paying more than she bargains for without ever knowing. The MacFarlands' intentionally cross paths with Rydal looking to see what he's up to and why he seems so interested in them. He says it's because Chester reminds him a lot of his father and we are fed more engaging but rather vague stories about Rydal's father throughout the film, although it never completely clarifies in what ways Rydal associates his father with his new acquaintance. Things get really interesting though when Chester crosses paths with a private investigator (David Warshofsky), acting on information from Chester's clients in the United States, that leads to a fight and to Chester accidentally killing the man. Rydal, returning Colette's bracelet that she left on the table at dinner, happens upon Chester in the hotel corridor as he is attempting to stow away the body and decides to help rather than report the couple. It is a curious decision, but it makes sense in the scheme of the character as Rydal has clearly already marked the couple as targets he could swindle a fair amount of money from while taking a more personal interest in Colette.

Amini has written a fair amount of eclectic screenplays ranging from Snow White and the Huntsmen to Drive, but here as he has both the control to translate the vision and the bring it off the page and it is clear he knows exactly what he wants. There is nothing more satisfying in film than the eventual vision of a director with confidence. I can imagine Amini has looked on countless times as his his writing has been translated into the visual medium in different ways than he imagined. So, when he came to this project it was likely both a relief and a pleasure to finally be able to bring his words to life in the way he envisioned as he placed them on the page. This brings me to the fact that the film is absolutely beautiful. It looks as though it is a painting in many frames, the camera work doing what it needs in order to evoke the intended emotions of each scene while we sit back and appreciate the beauty of the scope. This is most apparent in the opening moments as Rydal guides a group through the Greek ruins of Athena and Theseus and Amini's camera work takes us on our own journey over the shoulders of the characters and into this overwhelming world of mythic status. I say mythic, but watching the film almost gives one an otherworldly feeling about the place and time these characters and events exist within. There is a classic quality to it all that not only exudes from the cinematography and the pedigreed performances, but from the way in which the film approaches its premise and does it justice by not trying to outsmart it. This is a very straightforward drama with thriller aspects and forbidden love tendencies that never take over or are allowed to blossom. We never even really come to find out what the motivation is that's pushing Rydal to so loyally help this couple who are clearly in over their heads other than the prospect of money, but even at a certain point one has to believe neither the girl or any amount of cash would be worth the kind of drama and trouble Rydal faces. We wonder what in his past draws him not only to Colette, but to Chester and what is it about the scenario that he can't let go, but we don't get answers as much as we do more reason to keep watching ourselves.  

Rydal gets in deeper than he bargained when he realizes the truth about Mr. MacFarland.
As a confession, I have never seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is also based on a series of Patricia Highsmith novels and so I can't comment on how similar the stories or even the characters of Rydal and Tom Ripley are. I have meant to see the film for quite some time, but given it came before I started consciously watching and studying film I haven't had the opportunity to catch up on it (there are more urgent classics to be seen!). In discussing character though it is the tension between Rydal and Chester that the film builds around and develops a relationship that brings us to a screeching halt in the films climax. Neither are necessarily likable protagonists, but we feel different types of sympathy for both of them for different reasons. Isaac is smooth as the gambler who takes what he wants and leaves the rest for the less skilled yet somehow still comes away as the more innocent party though he is preying on the unsuspecting from the beginning. Mortensen is more or less doing what he does best and that is disappearing into a facade while Dunst is given little more to do here than look the part. It is interesting to note that as Rydal tells the story of Theseus and his father in the opening sequence that Chester's first line comes in soon after and states that the Greeks were masters of deception. Whatever foreshadowing you'd like to take from these initial statements is fully up to you, the viewer, as it is apparent they are intended to function as such, but it is the fashion in which they are portrayed by Isaac and Mortensen that allowed me to grin with glee at the possibilities of where this adventure might take me. Sure, there could have been a little tightening of the script in certain places for despite it being well-paced and never boring the logic on which the drama is supposed to hinge seems to become less calculated and more sloppy as the film moves along. This may very well be intentional and come from the source material, but it leads to a third act of the film that feels one in the same with its characters in that they both are just throwing ideas against the wall and hoping one of them gets them through to the end.