The Two Faces of January Written and directed by Hossein Amini, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith; with Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
The novels of American author Patricia Highsmith – for which the term “thrillers” seems insufficient, given Highsmith’s literary powers – have served as the basis for excellent film adaptations. Beyond Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” which was based on her first novel, we’ve had Rene Clement’s “Purple Noon” (the film that first made Alain Delon a star) and Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” both based on the same book, as well as Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” and Claude Chabrol’s “The Cry of the Owl.” Highsmith lived in Europe for many years; many of her books are set there, including “The Two Faces of January,” which appeared in 1964. Already made into a German film (which I have not seen) in 1986, the novel has now been adapted again by Iranian-born screenwriter Hossein Amini, whose writing credits include such very different projects as “Drive” and the Henry James adaptation, “The Wings of the Dove.”
“The Two Faces of January” is the first long feature Amini has directed (the executive producer is Max Minghella, the son of Anthony Minghella, who died in 2008 at the age of 54). The story is set in the early 1960s, first in Greece and then in Turkey. This is a chamber thriller focused on the relationship between three characters: Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an American businessman; Colette (Kirsten Dunst), his young wife; and Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tourist guide hired by the couple. Chester and Colette are about to part ways with Rydal, but then there is a murder, a body is made to vanish, and Rydal, a petty con-man, is swept into the world of Chester, a far bigger con artist.
Highsmith’s novels are never only thrillers; they are psychological dramas with a distinctly perverse edge, blurring the boundaries between good and evil as well as the limits of sexual identity. Many of her books – including this one and the “Ripley” series – have a distinct tinge of homoeroticism with Oedipal implications. And that is where Amini’s movie fails.
It is not enough that Rydal, after first seeing Chester at the Acropolis in Athens, says that he reminds him of his father; nor is it sufficient that the movie mentions Rydal’s father several more times. Nor is Rydal’s obvious attraction to Collette enough to increase the tension between him and Chester, a tension the movie clumsily tries to portray as sexual in itself. The materials are all there, but Amini’s skill as both writer and director is insufficient for them: instead of enriching the film, they seem schematic and forced.
While the two male heroes are crafted with a certain ability that provides insight into their characters, Collette remains a mystery. She is supposed to be a pawn between the two men – Highsmith’s suspense novels are usually about male relationships – but that does not mean she should not be a character in her own right. Despite Kirsten Dunst’s efforts, she is not.
The suspense plot of Amini’s movie unfolds in an effective but uninspired way. “The Two Faces of January” isn’t boring to watch, and we follow the twisting plot with interest, waiting for the result to add up to a drama of substance. But the direction is that of an obedient technician, not an artist, and the story, while aspiring to the psychological, dramatic and emotional layers of the novel, never really reaches them. On the contrary: As the film progresses and the details of the plot emerge, our initial curiosity about the characters gives way to a certain indifference. Viggo Mortensen, with his sculpted features, is always an impressive actor, and his role here is no exception – even though the movie keeps him from showing the full complexity of his character, making the result all exterior and no essence.
It took me a while to identify the actor playing Rydal, Oscar Isaac, as the talented star of the Coen brothers’ 2013 “Inside Llewyn Davis.” His performance in “The Two Faces of January” is colorless and uncharismatic. Isaac apparently needs a good director to bring out his potential. Since good directors are rare, and his abilities seem to be limited (he has appeared in quite a few movies where I didn’t really register his presence), his chances of becoming a star are probably limited as well.