The Two Faces of January (2014)
Editor’s Note: The Two Faces of January opens in limited release on September 26th.
Hossein Amini, The Two Faces of January’s writer-director, turned in the screenplay for Drive, the enthralling and utterly captivating film that somehow managed the marriage of gripping action and contemplative character piece. Amini, an experienced screenwriter, adapted the screenplay from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a book that merged con man sensibilities with the emotionality of troubled psychosis. When you bring those two things together, it is very difficult to stifle the voice of curiosity. It comes across like a wonderful introduction to an intriguing cinematic experience. Unfortunately, the simple coupling of talent does not guarantee success. Between these two mountains lies a deep valley of potential disappointment, and despite The Two Faces of January’s best efforts, it tumbles in.
Highsmith’s fingerprints coat The Two Faces of January, playing out like a better behaved sibling to Ripley. Oscar Isaac’s Rydal is a privileged student turned scam artist, who preys on the gullibility of American tourists. The ex-pat pairs his precise intellect with good looks and a disarming charm that turns young girls with heavy purses into willing participants. Rydal crosses path with Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), a mysterious man seemingly on a European vacation with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Chester’s perceived wealth and Colette’s beauty captivate Rydal, bringing the two parties closer together. After dinner with the couple, in an attempt to return a bracelet left behind by Colette, Rydal witnesses Chester’s disposal of an unconscious other man. Having grown fond of Colette, Rydal agrees to help the couple in any way that he can.
There are flashes of this greatness in The Two Faces of January, particularly in the interaction between the male characters. However, Amini lacks Refn’s driving force and artistic touch, so the story ends up merely a hollow shell.
The Two Faces of January marks the directorial debut of Hossein Amini. His list of screenwriting credits include the already mentioned Drive, and the critically lauded The Wings of the Dove. In Drive, Amini unearthed a unique story out of the non-linear James Sallis novel. To Drive’s advantage it had the guiding hand of Nicholas Winding Refn, the kind of filmmaker that exudes a confidence of vision that is hard to match. Whether you fully understand what is occurring or not, you can be sure that Refn knows. There are flashes of this greatness in The Two Faces of January, particularly in the interaction between the male characters. However, Amini lacks Refn’s driving force and artistic touch, so the story ends up merely a hollow shell.
Much of the film is completely expected. The necessary story beats are hit and those with merely a passing familiarity with con thrillers of days gone by can see how this story will play out. Additionally, Amini crafts these strong introductions to the characters only to abandon them for the sake of the plot later on. Where Rydal is shown to be strong and confident, with a lingering troubled past that makes him acceptably flawed, his strength melts away as he becomes engulfed in the MacFarlands’ affairs. Likewise, Chester is never sure enough of himself to be eligible for full classification. He reveals bursts of self-centered demons, but his devotion to his own wife flits between unshakeable and nearly non-existent. The characters do not respond to the events because of defined sensibilities, but rather in slavish devotion to a plot that only offers up mild twists when it doesn’t know what else to do. And I won’t even elaborate on the overt simplification of the female characters, turning them into useless set dressing at best and parodic damsels in distress at worst.
To the film’s advantage, these ill-defined characters are portrayed by a fantastic troupe of actors. Where Kirsten Dunst is shackled to a misogynistic sketch of a character, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac are given much more to do. While there are romantic subplots, this is largely a film about the relationship of these two men. The two characters are written with inherent similarities, both con men, unhappy with their station in life, attempting to escape their past; and the actors are able to hold mirrors to one another, without sacrificing any of themselves. A scene late in the film has the two across from one another in silence. Not a word is said, yet Mortensen and Isaac bring such a heightened emotional awareness that it bleeds into their very physicality. Watching these two men communicate more with the subtlest of expressions than any word could do justice is the absolute best part of the entire film.
The actors are restricted to a formulaic plot that drives the film, rather than adequately defined characters. The lack of definition leaves a void where the audience would hope to connect, and it is this lack of connection that ultimately results in little investment in the film’s eventual outcome.
Despite the strength of both Mortensen and Isaac’s performances, the rest of the film is largely left wanting. The actors are restricted to a formulaic plot that drives the film, rather than adequately defined characters. The lack of definition leaves a void where the audience would hope to connect, and it is this lack of connection that ultimately results in little investment in the film’s eventual outcome. Even as the film hits its requisite beats of tension and intrigue, the poorly paced segments that populate the in-between only further detract. The Two Faces of January holds such potential and there are a handful of moments in its runtime that represent the highs that could have been had. Nevertheless, first time director Hossein Amini delivers little more than a competent thriller, that is not up to the caliber of its male leads.
The Two Faces of January holds such potential and there are a handful of moments in its runtime that represent the highs that could have been had. Nevertheless, first time director Hossein Amini delivers little more than a competent thriller, that is not up to the caliber of its male leads.