LAFF 2014: The Two Faces of January
The Los Angeles Film Festival continued its Gala screenings Tuesday with The Two Faces of January. First time director Hossein Amini has proven he understands the art of calculated and slow-building periodic drama as the screenwriter of subdued gems The Wings of the Dove and Jude. He’s even proven he can handle drama of a more fast-paced nature with his script for 2011’s Drive. But Amini’s directorial début seems to hint at a possible film truth — that perhaps writing talent and directorial talent come from two different places.
Set in Greece in 1962, The Two Faces of January is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. She who gave us the inspiration for similar film adaptations The Talented Mr. Ripley and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Highsmith weaves thrillers involving characters that fall into one of two categories: those who have and those who covet. The Two Faces of January is no exception, telling the tale of American couple Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst) on vacation in Greece, both the epitome of American wealth and refinement. The two catch the eye of part-time tour guide and sometime swindler Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American who has been living in Greece, avoiding his family to the point of missing his own father’s funeral.
After catching Rydal staring at them, Colette investigates and Rydal charms them into an outing at the flea market, and later dinner. Enamored with the young Colette, and clearly in awe of the stylish Chester, Rydal rushes to return a bracelet Colette left in the taxi after their evening out. When he gets to the hotel he finds Chester in a precarious position involving an unconscious man. From there Rydal’s ambition and daddy issues pull him into the mounting troubles of Chester and Colette, while his increasing attraction to Colette forces him to travel into darker and darker territory to protect them.
Amini, while clearly capable of writing great characters, falters somewhat in getting his actors to help push the story along. The tacit tension between the three of them is certainly evident in their spectacular performances, however the film’s pacing is lacking, each of their misery only adding to the heap and not building off one another. Viggo Mortenson has made a believable transition from the smoldering heroes he’s played in the past, to an older cocksure man of leisure. Oscar Isaac continues to be the best part of almost every movie I’ve seen him in of late (even the recent and truly stunted In Secret, another film of wasted performances), his chiseled face and hungry expressions always conveying his lust for the sort of life he thinks he wants. Kirsten Dunst seems to be the deficient element, though not likely by any fault of her own as she’s given us plenty of remarkable performances over the years. Instead Amini underutilizes Dunst’s character, rather than allow the story to flow from her anchor as the strongest link between the three of them. As a result, Rydal’s infatuation seems unwarranted, Chester’s growing jealousy equally so.
With a distinctly classic feel, the soft lighting and bright colors of Greece are a stark contrast to the darker moments of vulnerability and madness woven through the few days the film covers. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (Dancer in the Dark) could hardly make the exotic locales of the film look anything but beautiful. Amini’s ambitions are clear, often utilizing distinctly Hitchcockian motifs. A closing foot chase scene through the pebbled streets of Istanbul could have been pulled straight out of a 50’s black and white film-noir. Steven Noble’s costume design is distractingly sophisticated. Clearly Amini has all the pieces: the looks, the feel, the music, the actors, but where he seems to falter is where Hitchcock most excelled — delving into the psychology of his characters. Where Hitchcock would dig deeper, Amini has only given us surface level and thus being truly invested in their collective fate is rather hard to muster. The story plays out melodramatically, instead of thrillingly.
Leveraging nostalgia and star power, the film is enticing even as it makes one hungry to put on an older classic. He may not yet be a writer-director double-threat, but this is an elegant first film from Hossein Amini.