The Two Faces of January Dir. Hossein Amini

[Magnolia Pictures; 2014]

Styles: suspense, crime, thriller
Others: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train

“The ancient Greeks were masters of deception,” says a dapper American to his young wife, reading from an Athens guide book, “even though the base of the Parthenon appears straight to the naked eye, it is in fact completely crooked.” Convex architecture aside, this principle of obscured corruption, of larcenous deception, is at the heart of The Two Faces of January, Hossein Amini’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Chester MacFarland, an investment broker vacationing in Athens with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), except that “investment banker” really means “con artist” and “vacationing” is a pleasant spin on “hiding from the irate clients whom he has swindled.” Chester and Colette attract the attention of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), another expatriated American living in Greece. Ostensibly a tour guide, Rydal is every bit the two-timer Chester is, capitalizing upon tourists’ ignorance of the local currency and tongue, misrepresenting costs and exchange rates, and pocketing the difference. Recognizing Chester’s affluence and Colette’s beauty, Rydal sets his sights on both the man’s wallet and his wife.

Matters become more complicated when a private investigator (David Warshofsky) who has caught up with Chester threatens Chester and his wife and is accidentally killed in the ensuing tussle. Unaware of Chester’s past or the investigator’s death, and hoping to get some more cash out of the MacFarlands, Rydal agrees to get them to Crete and to obtain new passports for them, embroiling him in a multinational murder investigation. As Rydal and Colette begin to understand the extent of Chester’s wrongdoing and as Chester becomes increasingly skeptical of Rydal’s motives, paranoia mounts and allegiances shift; as is the case with most thrillers, the less said about the third act, the better.

Highsmith’s books have previously been adapted into exemplary films ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and many of the same elements are at play in The Two Faces of January: the doubling of the leads, the fascination with deception and false identities, and the Oedipal overtones (before his money and wife, it is Chester’s resemblance to Rydal’s recently deceased father that initially catches the young con’s eye). But Amini, an Oscar nominated screenwriter making his directorial debut, lacks the skill and subtlety of Hitchcock and Minghella. He is aided greatly by Marcel Zyskind’s moody cinematography and strong performances from his leads, but Amini’s tendency to shoot his actors in medium-to-close shots and to cut among them rather than let scenes play out in master shots lessens the impact of the psychological tug of war. Rather than exaggerate the divisions among the characters, as it could have done, the somewhat uninspired technique undercuts the tension and rhythm within the scenes.

The problems originate in Amini’s screenplay, which largely reduces the characters to their actions, skimping on psychology and motivation. It can be difficult sometimes to distinguish between the subtle and the underdeveloped, but The Two Faces of January unfortunately leans toward the latter. In Drive, which Amini adapted for director Nicolas Winding Refn, the protagonist’s terseness and lack of a backstory became its own form of characterization. Here, however, the characters talk plenty without saying very much at all. Chester and Rydal are con men, of course, and if it was just them it could conceivably be by design; but it is Colette who, like a distressingly large number of secondary female characters throughout the history of cinema, is the least defined of the three. Additionally, the allusions to Rydal’s father feel undercooked and don’t logically add up to the final scene, which aims to not only resolve the narrative but to underline the Oedipal projections as well as the duality explicitly telegraphed in the title.

Despite these shortcomings, Amini’s first stint in the director’s chair is enjoyable, handsomely mounted, competent if undistinguished, and likely to satisfy those who like a tightly wound suspense tale without a lot of histrionics. The performances and location photography alone justify a recommendation; one simply wishes there was a little more to chew on.

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