Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial debut takes its title from the English derivation of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who stands at the cusp of the new year, simultaneously musing backward at recent lessons and experiences, and peering forward to the murky and elusive future ahead, a guardian at the crossroads of the past and present. The reference implies the twin forces of duplicity and shifting circumstances that swirl in the fragrant atmosphere of The Two Faces of January, an old-school, sly, seductive Southern Europe-set tale of moral compromise and misdirection. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Amini’s film has its own two faces; it’s at once an involving character drama and a gripping suspense movie, a pleasurable period piece of precision and class and a tight and tidy thriller as shrewd, sleek, and scintillating as its characters.
The movie sets up and then subverts our expectations and judgments, introducing two seemingly opposite Americans on the steps of the Parthenon, only to divulge that there is much more than meets the eye in either case. Rich and relaxed, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) radiates wealth and sophistication. On a tour of the tourist traps of the cradle of civilization, he and his much younger, beautiful blonde wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) look like prey to the unscrupulous gaze of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, highly educated American expat with flawless Greek and a swarthy allure that allow him to pass for a local. Both the language and the looks, along with a slippery charm, make it so he can slither his way through small-time cons, skimming from giggling girls as he exchanges their dollars for drachmas or exploiting young travelers’ faulty translation skills to short-change them. We can only assume he’s just caught the MacFarlands in his crosshairs for his next swindle.
Chester MacFarland, however, has his own haunting past, and when it comes knocking at the door of his first-class hotel suite, he’ll have to drag its unconscious body up the lushly carpeted hallways, where he is discovered by Rydal, who helps him without fully realizing what he’s getting himself into. Initially hired as their travel guide at Colette’s insistence, the young man quickly becomes a scheming guardian angel to the couple and an only half-unwitting accomplice to an assortment of illegal acts that grow increasingly darker and deadlier as the movie progresses and the trio flees the authorities across Greece with increasingly anxious acceleration.
It turns out Rydal’s deceptions and the greed that fuels them are much more minor than Chester’s. Although he can wear the shit out of those cream linen suits, the fashionable older gentleman doesn’t come from old money, having climbed the social ladder by engaging in some seriously risky business, as the wads of dishonestly earned cash in his suitcase will attest. While Chester is capable of devastatingly, deadly amoral behavior as well as grand redemptive gesture, Rydal is innocent of the crimes he’ll soon be accused of but guilty of his own transgressions, not the least of which is his unending proclivity to be swayed by dollars like a child by candy. The Two Faces of January is a tale of two Ripleys, junior and senior. As Chester points out, it’s only a matter of time before the younger man will end up like him.
Amini nicely folds in the Theseus myth and the tragic fate of his father Aegeus in the opening scene, just before we learn of Rydal’s own father’s death. As the plot literally and figuratively thickens, Rydal and Chester will take turns as the myth’s Minotaur, at one point literally circling around the maze at Knossos. But there is also a deeper Freudian connection in which Chester, who reminds Rydal of his father, gives the young man a chance to recreate and maybe repair his strained relationship with a disapproving dad, and Colette embodies a forbidden Oedipal temptation. Just as the fugitives gravitate away from civilization in the big cities towards the safer small towns, they move further away from civility. The woman’s growing dependence on Rydal and her mounting disillusionment with her husband bring out Chester’s ugly side. Drinking heavily, jealous, mean, he is increasingly volatile and untrustworthy, and Rydal, who initially strikes us as the more manipulative and sly of the two grifters, can be surprisingly gallant, kind, and profoundly loyal.
The push-pull of Chester and Rydal’s prickly partnership, a pact between swindlers, gives the movie its pulse. The initial alpha-male sparring through which each gets the measure of the other and presses for weak spots, challenging one another’s wiles and values, often places Colette in the crossfire. The woman’s own ambitions never come in quite as sharp a focus as either of her male companions. But even though Amini emphasizes the bond between the story’s men, Dunst’s performance is perfectly honed to a purpose, managing to communicate depth beyond the subdued, stylish, sunny gorgeousness of her character’s look. Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Anthony Minghella’s acclaimed The Talented Mr.Ripley—if Marge had been in on the crimes—Colette is caught in the middle of two men’s battle, increasingly unsure of whose side to take as their inevitably spiraling fates intertwine in an ever-growing web of intrigue. It is this three-way relationship of sultry sexual chemistry and its polarizing morals that deliver the grit to crystalize the complex pieces of the jigsaw.
One of the film’s and its lead actors’ most fascinating accomplishments lies in the near-impossible feat of taking three deeply dishonest, damaged, and generally unsympathetic individuals and making us care about them. As he did with the disheveled, disreputable title character of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac manages to make Rydal appealing against all odds, while still maintaining a welcome air of ambiguity. Mortensen is superb as a fraud whose façade crumbles but who retains his craftiness even in despair, finding the nuances necessary to create a layered portrayal of a smooth con man in psychological freefall, but one who is never simplistic enough to lose all our sympathy. The scene on the ocean liner in which the two actors sit face to face but not a word of dialogue is spoken is one of the film’s most unsettlingly powerful moments.
But we can’t really talk about a cinema of sexual attraction and repression, role reversal and parent issues without bringing up Hitchcock, whom Amini’s period thriller emulates if not quite matches. The exotic, 1960s backgrounds and a tense, surging score that takes its cues from Bernard Herrman overtly pay homage to the Master of Suspense, while cinematographer Marcel Zyskind does magical things with light and location, so there’s always somewhere to look—somewhere that might not be where you’re supposed to.
If there is any major problem with this sun-dappled exploration of life on the lam and the fallibility of father figures, it comes in the final act. The film has diligently laid the groundwork for an exciting, unpredictable climax, but when it gets there the ending seems oddly muted, missing a vital visceral credibility. We believe it on an intellectual level, but emotionally it doesn’t leave much of an impression.
The Two Faces of January might be a tad less talented than Minghella’s 1999 Highsmith adaptation at finding the perfect end note, but it excels at conveying some similar subtle, unspoken tensions between characters. Amini’s golden-hued tour of sweltering Mediterranean summer islands alongside this trio of beautiful, lying law-breakers is a gilded guilty pleasure.