The Two Faces of January is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, screenwriter of Wings of the Dove and Drive. The film is an old fashioned thriller, much in the vein of Hitchcock and Antonioni, and while it is gorgeously rendered and bursting with acting talent, it is a slightly uncertain debut, despite some interesting layers of subtext.
Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, a young American living in Athens giving tours of the Parthenon and conducting a little petty larceny on unsuspecting tourists. Along come well-to-do ex-patriots Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and they become fast friends. Although, it is not long before Rydal is forced by circumstance to help Chester cover up a murder he has just committed. The three of them flee Athens and sail off to Crete to wait until the heat dies down. It is here that tensions rise between the group and jealousy and paranoia sets the characters on a collision course that seems destined from the start.
For his first time in the director’s chair, Hossein Amini brings a surprising amount of talent to bear, his time hanging around film sets as a screenwriter obviously paying off. Along with his cinematographer, Marcel Zyskind, he has crafted a beautifully muted palette to evoke the period of the 1960s and the look of beautiful Greek landscapes, from Athens to Knossos. Watching the characters’ journey through the desert and back again brings to mind Antonioni’s The Passenger, even though the story threatens to fall back into that film’s languid pace as Amini and his editors struggle to keep the momentum going from time to time.
No matter his skills behind the camera, Amini remains an extremely accomplished screenwriter. Adapting the Hitchcock-like styling of Patricia Highsmith’s narrative (she is also the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train) serves him well, as he portrays two very indelible and complex characters in Chester and Rydal; an unlikely surrogate father/son relationship filled with misdirected emotions on behalf of two men who are struggling to find their place in the world. What on the face of it feels like an excellent exercise in film noir tropes is belied by the fascinating characters at its heart and the interesting subtext under its skin.
In addition to the interesting father/son dynamic shared by the two male leads, Amini lets the Greek landscape influence his screenplay. At the top of the film, Rydal is seen describing the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a story which will inform how the characters relationships play out, with Rydal as Theseus and Chester as the aforementioned horned beast. Amini draws a fascinating parallel here as the metaphorical dark labyrinth the two men find themselves in becomes almost physical during a chase sequence toward the climax of the film. This element of Greek tragedy informs the feeling of destiny that entwines these characters from the beginning. They were always going to meet, it was only a matter of when.
Mortensen and Isaac are both terrific as these two criminals at odds with one another while at the same time being inextricably linked. Isaac has a lot of pain beneath his good looks, which comes out in unexpected ways, while Mortensen turns in another blistering performance where every tick and mannerism tells Chester’s entire life story. They both bring to the fore the elements of Amini’s screenplay that suggest that these men are not bad people, just people who do bad things. There is a sadness and regret for both men who are on a path of self-destruction. It will take one of them to break the cycle if they are to be saved.
It is a shame that these two central performances are so good and the characters so well defined that the third member of this ménage à trois, Colette – this Greek tragedy’s metaphorical Ariadne – is so woefully underwritten. Kirsten Dunst is a remarkable actress, and it boggles the mind as to what attracted her to this role of the woman who gets between these men. There is an attempt by both Dunst and Amini to give the character more to do, and a little more agency, but at the end of the day she is at best a catalyst for Chester’s antagonism toward Rydal and at worst, an obstacle. While the film’s main concern is between the two men, there could have been more done here than just a working holiday in Greece for someone as talented as Dunst.
The Two Faces of January is a classy thriller not afraid to take its time and set the mood before plunging into its genre elements, and Hossein Amini has achieved a very promising debut film, even if there are a few cracks showing. Mortensen is fantastic as always and Isaac is forging a career for himself as a very promising actor. Dunst acquits herself well for what little she is given, and the locations and cinematography are absolutely gorgeous. But really, it’s in the script where this film is most interesting. On its surface it is a fine if unremarkable thriller with many twists that have been used many times before, but under this veneer there are many fascinating themes just waiting to be chewed on and mulled over.
The Two Faces of January is an old fashioned thriller from the writer of Drive that despite a few missteps, is still a thoroughly fascinating directorial debut.