The Iranian-British screenwriter, Hossein Amini, has enjoyed a great deal of success with the modern cult classic Drive, amongst his other projects. Now, Amini adds another feather to his cap with his directorial debut The Two Faces of January.
Like almost all his previous projects, Amini has fantastic source material at his disposal. The screenplay is adapted from a lesser-known work by American novelist, Patricia Highsmith, whose books have in the past been adapted into movies by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and Wim Wenders (The American Friend). The Two Faces of January shares many themes with her most popular novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was also adapted into a 1999 Academy Award-nominated crime drama by Anthony Minghella.
Speaking of similarities between The Two Faces of January and the book, there are a couple of Ripley-esque characters in Amini’s film. One of them is Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), a conman ‘vacationing’ with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) in Crete, Greece. The other is Rydal (Oscar Isaac — as good here as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis), a handsome and mysterious tour guide, who meets the MacFarlands in Greece and offers to help them remain undercover.
But very soon, the three Americans start outwitting each other. Amini creates a heady cocktail of lust, suspicion and betrayal, peppered with scenes of dancing, heavy smoking and drinking. It is in some ways reminiscent of the American television period drama Mad Men and the ‘60s feel with Chester’s impeccable cream linen suits (costume design by Steven Noble).
The film creates an interesting dynamic between the three characters, pitting playful Colette between these very polarising men. But then it turns out that the two men do have much in common. It makes for an interesting father-son analogy and The Two Faces of January stresses on this quasi-relationship perhaps too much, making the climax a bit hard to digest. One does not see that end coming, since the film’s tempo seemed to have been built up for a darker, more cynical outcome.
What makes the film watchable besides the gorgeous cinematography (Marcel Zyskind has a ball with the locales in Greece and Turkey) is the acting. All three, Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac, give masterful performances. Mortensen is fantastic as the suave-at-first-sight-but-eventually-broken-man and Isaac matches him frame for frame. The film’s most tense moment and intriguing scene involves the two at an airport security check and the way they play against each other. It’s a pity that Kirsten Dunst is a tad side-lined in hindsight, but for what it’s worth, she makes her presence felt.
The Two Faces of January feels very much like a nail-biting page-turner on screen, which is a compliment to Amini’s adaptation skills. He has made a very fine first film, with top-notch actors and it deserves all the appreciation for being a respectable entry in the Highsmith film canon.
Schayan Riaz is a writer based in Germany. He tweets mostly about film @schayanriaz
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014.