The Two Faces of January

Posted by Joel Copling on October 21, 2014

Pretty much everything about "The Two Faces of January" is old-fashioned. This is no real surprise, given that the screenplay by director Hossein Amini has been adapted from a 1964 novel by Patricia Highsmith, but it warrants mention nonetheless. The setting is early-1960s Greece and, later, Istanbul. The characters are a secretive bunch of con artists and swindlers. The narrative reflects just about as much surprise as those elements might lead one to believe, what with its efficiency in imparting twists that aren't really surprising and developing character histories that are steeped in mystique. But this is solid filmmaking because of all those things, a film for which the word "dependable" was likely coined.

We know that when Rydal (Oscar Isaac), the object of the narrative's focus, showcases a knack for swindling people of their money, it cannot bode well for anyone he comes across. We also know that there's something fishy about that married couple, Chester and Collette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), who have arrived in Athens under curious circumstances. The friendship that these three spark up is all but destined to be a radioactive one. It starts swimmingly enough, though, with a tour through the local shops and a dinner party (Rydal has also made a friend, named Lauren and played by Daisy Bevan, whom we never see again). When a private detective (David Warshofsky) comes calling, the night predictably ends in his murder.

This sparks the second half of the film, which is a labyrinth of fateful decisions in an underground cave and subsequent betrayals and confessions. For such a lightweight, breezy caper as this, the actors do their thing so well one would think it's a more substantial effort than it is. Isaac is superb at playing all emotions fairly close to the chest; Rydal is a man with deep regrets, having missed his own father's funeral a month ago and remaining solid on the fact that he isn't missed. Mortensen and Dunst play off each other's secrets (They keep a multitude of them from each other--as many as from Rydal) so well that a major event leading into the final act carries some weight.

But for the most part, "The Two Faces of January" is workmanlike filmmaking from Amini, whose history of having adapted 2011's masterful "Drive" determines his interest in material involving secretive characters caught up in a desperate scheme that simply grows more desperate. Marcel Zyskind's cinematography is resplendent, Nicolas Chauderge and Jon Harris' editing is clever and nimble, and Alberto Iglesias' score complements every scene, rather than dictating tone or mood. To bring up the word again, everything about "The Two Faces of January" is dependable but entertaining--slight but engaging.

Film Information

Oscar Isaac (Rydal), Viggo Mortensen (Chester MacFarland), Kirsten Dunst (Colette MacFarland), David Warshofsky (Paul Vittorio), Daisy Bevan (Lauren), Omiros Poulakis (Nikos), Socrates Alafouzos (Customs Hall Policeman).

Directed and written by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.

Rated PG-13 (violence, language, smoking).

96 minutes.

Released in select cities on September 26, 2014.