The Two Faces of January, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, is a superbly acted and sporadically intriguing thriller, yet it has a difficult time locating more stringent meaning and significance beyond its outward narrative of duplicitous actions and veiled motivations. Set in 1962 Athens, the film opens on Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide whose year-long stay in Greece seems to have consisted mostly of leading groups of slender young women around the Parthenon and pontificating about Theseus’s tumultuous relationship with his father. One late afternoon, Rydal chitchats with Colette (Kirstin Dunst), who happens to be vacationing with her husband, Chester (Viggo Mortensen), leading to the trio becoming holiday companions. In these initial sequences, Amini frames the perfectly groomed and garmented actors with the same sense of luscious care that he affords the Greek geography, though that attention begins to wane once Chester’s identity as a con man is revealed, forcing the three into hiding, and igniting a father/son-like rivalry between Rydal and Chester.
Writer-director Hossein Amini displays a Buñuelian sense of time, best epitomized by economical leaps in narrative progression, like when Colette hands Chester a scrap of paper with Rydal’s hotel information on it, which is immediately followed by a scene days later with the two of them walking through a local flea market. But unlike Buñuel, who roots these abrupt shifts forward in time, either in reality or reverie and within the psychological and class distress of a singular character, Amini fumbles for a precise, philosophical meaning to the film’s plotting. Instead, his edits and sequences are engineered for narrative efficiency, often at the expense of thematic or affectual aims. The same can be said for a memorable cut from and insert of Chester flipping through a wad of hundred-dollar bills to a shot of water spraying out from behind their getaway boat. Amini moves about the film’s events as if going through a checklist, finding the most suitable functional equivalent for any number of other stitching elements he could have presumably mustered. These aesthetic devices lend the film a sense of precision and refinement, but only to the effect of it being too calculated a concoction, ready-made for consumption as a film that’s playing by the hard-and-fast rules of “quality” filmmaking.
In other words, Amini is making veritable cinéma de papa, if his papas were Alan J. Pakula and Anthony Minghella. Like the films of those largely middlebrow directors, The Two Faces of January is too neatly wrapped around a sense of gradually unraveling characters. Nevertheless, Amini wrings stellar performances from Isaac and Mortensen, which lessens some of the film’s more wooden elements. In a particularly memorable scene, Rydal reveals his father was a university professor who taught him several languages, while insinuating that his strict discipline grew into resentment and hostility for his father. Chester, sipping scotch to excessive drunkenness, scoffs: “My old man drove a truck for a living; he didn’t teach us very good English, nevermind French or Russian.” That class divide cuts to the core of the interests of Amini’s male characters, who grapple with their inflated egos and escalating capacity for deceit and physical violence without much concern for Colette, whose fate is ultimately out of either man’s hands.
The film’s title matches the relationship of Rydal’s opening story regarding Theseus, whose carelessness drove his father Aegeus to suicide. In that vein, Rydal and Chester gradually become much the same man despite their initial, seeming differences, a narrative device that mirrors the dual male characters of Claude Chabrol’s first two films, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. However, a deeper significance between the men eludes Amini outside of cinematic allusions, primarily because his script has the pair jumping through a series of narrative hoops in the film’s final third, rather than homing in on the masculine perfidies that undergird their homosocial love/hate relationship.