Film Review: The Two Faces of January

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Nick Deigman on 12 May 2014

Athens, 1962. Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Dunst) are taking a tour of the Parthenon. You’d be forgiven for thinking they are on their honeymoon, such is the giddiness of their ardour. But beneath his glamorous and hearty exterior, Chester is clearly a man who can’t let his guard down. And so it is that he becomes distracted by a young man who has been watching them intently throughout their visit to the site. The young man is Rydal (Isaac), a New Jersey ex-pat who looks every bit the Mediterranean Lothario, he earns his keep leading impressionable female college students around the ruins of the Parthenon. Rydal is intrigued by this handsome gentleman who reminds him, uncomfortably, of his recently deceased father; and he quickly becomes besotted by Colette.

And so, when he arrives at the MacFarland’s hotel room to return a lost bracelet, and finds Chester dragging the lifeless corpse of an American gangster into a hotel room, he makes the life-threatening mistake of offering to help the couple to escape. This being the Sixties, and their being in Greece, nothing happens as quickly as the trio might have hoped. Thus the stage is set for a slow, tense, emotionally embroiled escape from the authorities, and exile on the island of Crete.

Hossein Amini’s first feature is loyal and unswerving crime fiction from start to finish. At times it is a masterclass in the genre: a densely layered, patient exploration of three lives fraying as they struggle against one another, and against their own urges and longings. But at other times it becomes the victim of its own loyalty: safely played, predictable, too calm when it should be shocking, too melodramatic when it should be muted. Moments that, played quietly, might have had more strength, get lost in flatulent camerawork and a score that pays more heed to Carol Reed than it does to its own characters needs.

The setting plays to its own strengths (making modern day Athens and Crete look like 1960’s Athens and Crete requires almost no work) but the costumes are impeccable, and without a change of clothes between our three protagonists, they become a bedraggled and threadbare reflection of the characters’ internal struggles.

The performances are virtually faultless. Kirtsen Dunst is the charmed American girl, startled by riches, done up like Ingrid Bergman but faltering under the disguise. Viggo Mortensen is the grey-eyed, watery criminal whose life could have turned out so differently if it weren’t for the cowardly greed that grips him. He’s a white-collar criminal, way out of his depth, and he’s made the fool’s mistake of actually falling in love with his wife on the lam.

But the star of this film is without doubt Oscar Isaac as the brooding Rydal: a young man who is no less on the run than the MacFarlands. On the run from his family, from his dead father, from the vast chasm of his own empty future. His is perhaps the most convincing character trajectory of the film: from a sullen man child living off sorority girl handouts, to a towering, ferocious presenc e hellbent on revenge. The film is worth watching just to see his performance grow through the final third: as misery, grief, and hate fuse together in a tumultuous, hopeless climax.


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