Janus, Filmed: The Two Faces of January

09/24/2014 4:00 AM |

The Two Faces of January
Directed by Hossein Amini

The Two Faces of January, a mixed-bag adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel from the writer of Drive, opens in the shadow of the Parthenon, with a tour guide’s recounting of how Aegeus drowned himself, mistakenly believing that his son, Theseus, had been felled by the Minotaur. The ensuing scenes leave no doubt about the centrality of the father-son theme: that expat tour guide, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), opens an airmail letter from home wondering why he couldn’t find it in him to return home for his father’s funeral; he soon crosses paths with a newlywed American couple, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, seeing more than a little of his father in the husband, Chester, a couple decades older than his second wife, Colette.

While this “subtext” too often feels out-of-focus—a wobbly attempt to lend some thematic weight to the fugitive proceedings—writer-director Hossein Amini succeeds in gradually ratcheting up the suspense. He quickly burrows under what appearances might suggest—upstanding tourists strolling amid the white-stone ruins, clad in genteel shades of khaki—to show a trio of people quite desperately on the run across the far-flung continent. Agreeing to ferry around Chester and Colette, Rydal uses his Greek to negotiate with merchants, skimming more than a few drachmas off the top for himself. The scheme seems to go unnoticed, but after a dinner out with Rydal and a date in Athens, Chester nonetheless informs his wife that he “wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn.” Though the flush-with-cash Chester has a sure golden-boy gait, and claims to have helped liberate Paris, neither is he to be trusted: a rap on the hotel-room door and he’s cornered by a private detective, sent to collect the money he swindled from a stateside gambling syndicate.

The detective doesn’t come out of that room alive, as Chester sloughs off the man-who-has-everything act and keys in to his own apparent history of violence—Mortensen does his best work here when called upon to enact his character’s quick, squirmy slide into self-protective mode. As the couple makes haste away from the crime scene—along with Rydal, who sniffs an opportunity to make some money, get closer to Colette, and, more murkily, find the fatherly acceptance he never had—the setting removes to the Grecian isle of Crete. It’s almost as if their flight also takes them back in time from 1962, the surrounding landscape more elemental, the town-square inhabitants fewer and farther between.

Shot on location by Marcel Zyskind, The Two Faces of January certainly looks the part of a seductive Americans-abroad period piece, its off-white palette suited to revealing the grandeur of the Old World as well as calling attention to the glisten of sweat on its characters’ faces. But in addition to being too insistent about its dramatic heft as a story about failed fathers and twinned fates, its performances are typically least credible when passions are running high—Mortensen, so good at so much here, growls strangely through his angry-drunk scenes; there is meant as well to be sexual tension between Isaac and Dunst that is not particularly palpable. Perhaps it is all the more impressive, then, that Amini manages to keep his film gripping until its Istanbul chase-scene finale, ably pivoting from one reversal to another, carrying off the serpentine plot in what amounts to a decent homage to the Master of Suspense.

Opens September 26