Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (writer of The Talented Mr Ripley), and directed by Hossein Amini (screenwriter of Drive), The Two Faces of January is a 1960s-set drama/thriller about what happens when two Americans get in over their heads in a country they know nothing about. One can certainly see a resemblance to The Talented Mr Ripley in the film’s DNA, with its focus on rich Americans in beautiful European locations but, overall The Two Faces of January is a far lesser work.
The Americans in question are Chester Mcfarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his beautiful and much younger wife Collette (Kirsten Dunst). While on holiday in Athens they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a Greek speaking tour guide who makes a bit on the side by conning clueless Americans, like Chester and his wife, out of their money by offering to exchange their dollars for local currency, at a vastly increased conversion rate. Drawn towards them by the couple’s riches, as well as Collette’s beauty and Chester’s resemblance to his father, Rydal becomes friendly with them, and in doing so witnesses a sticky situation in which all three become implicated.
The rest of the film concerns the three’s attempt to get out of Greece while the authorities are searching for them, but suspenseful moments are rare, because the police are slow to catch on to them. Instead there is a focus on the three characters as they realise they are stuck together whether they like it or not. The meat of the film’s drama is the tension between the three as it becomes clear how much Rydal desires Collette and how violent Chester’s temper can be. There is also the issue of Chester’s past – how exactly did he come in to so much money?
Answers are not quickly forthcoming and the film is fairly slow burning besides a few chase sequences, but the tension does ratchet up nicely as the police manage to follow their trail. Just as they needed to be, the performances are solid all around, with Viggo Mortensen particularly standing out with his ability to seem in turns violent and pathetic. His barely contained brutality reminds me of his character during the second half of 2005’s A History of Violence.
On paper then, all the ingredients seem right with The Two Faces of January; an adaptation of a highly-regarded novel, a promising screenwriter turned director and a proven cast of A-listers. With all that said though, it falls flat. The plot ends up unsatisfying and the film is perfectly well executed but ultimately unremarkable.
Its presentation elevates it above lesser imitators, but a lack of adventurousness stops The Two Faces of January from standing out from the crowd.