Very much a throwback to films of a bygone era, The Two Faces of January is somewhat removed from the typical dichotomy of contemporary cinema that is the Hollywood blockbuster versus the quirky independent. Director Hossein Amini has crafted a film that doesn’t come close to fitting within either of these categories and that in itself makes for a refreshing change. It’s just a shame, therefore, that The Two Faces of January isn’t a better film. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to like, but overall it leaves you feeling a little flat, failing to deliver on the promise of the early scenes. Having crafted a career as a screenwriter with the likes of The Wings of the Dove, Drive and, most recently, 47 Ronin, the Iranian-born Amini has chosen an adaptation of a novel from Texan writer Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley) for his directorial debut. Set in 1962, this story centres around two wealthy Americans in Europe who find themselves embroiled in a somewhat tenuous relationship with a charming tour guide with a penchant for swindling his customers.
Viggo Mortensen plays Chester McFarland, a con artist who has fled to Europe in an effort to avoid being held to account by those he has ripped off via a series of investment scams, with Kirsten Dunst as his knowing wife Colette. Whilst sightseeing at the Acropolis, the couple encounter tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a youngish, Greek-speaking American who is initially drawn to Colette’s beauty. Accepting an invitation to dinner, Rydal is subsequently recruited as a guide, securing himself a ‘commission’ in every negotiation he undertakes with local vendors on behalf of his new friends. When Chester’s past catches up with him, Rydall proves invaluable in helping Chester and Colette flee Athens and navigate their way to a safe haven. As Rydall’s fixation with Colette deepens, Chester’s paranoia does likewise and the two men soon find themselves engaged in a battle of wits. It is hard to take sides though because none of these characters can be described as particularly upstanding. I mean, Colette has fled with Chester in full knowledge of his transgressions and is quite happy to live the high life on the proceeds of these activities and, when it seems as though Rydall may have got himself in too deep, it is hard to muster much sympathy given his predilection for scamming unsuspecting tourists.
The film effectively emphasises the good (a sense of style and sophistication; the absence of all-pervasive technology) and the bad (smoking permitted everywhere from restaurants to trains) of 1960’s Europe. The scenery, ancient ruins, crowded streets and narrow alleyways combine to evoke a sense of place that is romantic and menacing in equal measure. Whilst both men initially present with a confident, charming exterior in their efforts to impress Colette, their confidence is shaken as they find themselves hunted by the authorities and unable to trust each other. This is a typical old school thriller; the killings are bloodless and utterly devoid of violence by today’s standards and there is a beautiful blonde at the heart of the conflict between two handsome but decidedly dodgy men. Dunst is mysterious and mischievous as Colette, a woman happy enough to capitalise on her husband’s dirty deeds yet seemingly open to a better offer should one come along.
The Two Faces of January is a pleasant enough sojourn through picturesque locales such as Athens, Crete and Istanbul with attractive and capable actors who make the best of the material with which they have been presented. If anything, it is the usually reliable Mortensen (so good in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence) who lets the side down, looking ill at ease at times as the callous Chester. Much of what takes place – including a final chase on foot through the laneways of Istanbul – harks back to thrillers such as The Third Man. Like films of this type often do, there is a reliance on coincidences and contrivances to drive the story towards any kind of conclusion. Those longing for the rapid-paced editing style of the Bourne films will be disappointed as this story unfolds at a much more languid pace. Whilst The Two Faces of January looks fabulous – courtesy of cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and costume designer Steven Noble – the film is a somewhat slight and conventional affair, which is a shame.