Based on the book by Patricia Highsmith The Two Faces Of January marks the directorial debut of Drive writer Hossein Amini. With those two names alone you would expect a tight thriller with fascinating characters. Half of which is true of the film.
In 1962 glamorous couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst) are sightseeing in the Greek islands. Meeting American tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) the couple pay him to be their guide for their journey. Returning home one night Chester accidentally kills a Private Investigator who is looking into his fraudulent ways back in the States. With Chester and Colette on the run Rydal finds himself caught in a perilously balanced predicament; unable to leave the alluring Colette but seen as a threat and potential fall guy to Chester. With little choice Rydal agrees to help them off the Greek islands and becomes embroiled in Chester’s deadly tactics.
Like the Greek weather there is a radiant charm about The Two Faces Of January. It’s sumptuous to look at; the sun beats down on tanned skin, sunglasses perch fashionably cool on characters’ faces. But like the wisps of smoke that cling to their mouths there is something dark always simmering just beneath the surface.
Indeed Amini has clearly picked up some tips from his Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn in conjuring a noirish pallet of both look and unsettling tone. As with much of Highsmith’s work the film is littered with questionable characters and antiheroes. The trick is to always find something more deplorable in one character to elevate the protagonist. Because within The Two Faces Of January there is always a sense of who is conning whom. At least that’s how it starts out.
If there is a flaw here it’s that the plot rarely manages to keep up with the murky characters on offer. Chester and Rydal flit between a deadly game of cat and mouse and a sense of father-son relationship. All the while Colette plays the object of their affection, a trophy to be toyed with and eventually won or lost. So while the plot often feels predictable the characters’ actions do not and it is here that Amini has excelled.
Not least of all in his casting. Dunst is radiant as Colette, glowing in the Mediterranean weather and always giving off an air that she knows more than she is letting on. It’s a pity that she descends into a damsel in distress when for much of the movie you feel there was a femme fatal just waiting to pounce. Mortensen is typically lupine and predatory, glaring at the more virile Rydal with increasing anger. Isaacs meanwhile continues to prove to be a quietly magnetic screen presence. His Rydal is not averse to flashing a killer smile at the ladies before short-changing them but, like his preppy haircut you feel there is the ability to do right beneath the rebellious streak.
While the plot never quite leaves you guessing in the way the early scenes promise The Two Faces Of January nevertheless succeeds in crafting fascinating and deeply rich characters.