Despite the wintry title, treat The Two Faces of January offers sun-kissed, ouzo-soaked vistas of 1960s Greece. Unfortunately for those in need of a relaxing optical holiday, this film is an anxious, claustrophobic thriller full of deceit, jealousy and barely contained rage. The dual-faced Greek god Janus, for whom the month and story are named, presides over change and transition, past and future, war and peace, all of which are present in Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
It is 1962 and Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Greece, happily conning customers out of small sums and taking advantage of rich, naive college girls. Along come Chester and Collette McFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), well-to-do tourists of the very sort Rydal loves to exploit. Showing them the highlights of Athens’ beauty spots, he grows attached to both, Collette in particular. This connection results in him helping them after Chester’s dodgy business dealings back home catch up with him, requiring new passports and a hasty departure. As they venture into the arid Greek islands, Rydal finds his loyalties tested by his growing affection for Collette and trepidation about the honesty and sanity of Chester, who grows ever closer to breaking point.
An old fashioned thriller, The Two Faces of January delights in scenes of growing discontent within the group, as Rydal and Chester compete for Collette’s affection. However much is spoken, what is left unsaid is far juicier. With Amini’s strong script to work with, Isaac and Mortensen play jealous rivals with gusto, two sides of the same coin (another deliberate Janus reference), while Dunst is surprisingly good as the wife torn between fidelity to a compromised man and the promise of escape. The battle for alpha supremacy leads to some truly tense scenes, which are often unrelated to the main narrative, but reveal so well the bitterness and complexities of both men. Despite this, some of the more fascinating character psychology is left under-developed, such as the twisted pseudo-paternalistic relationship between the men, while Collette’s indecision is at times passive enough to provoke frustration.
The Greek locations are beautiful in their desolation, with the many ruins witnessed along the way representative of the emotional voids within all three leads. The sweltering heat serves to enhance the sweaty atmosphere, while simultaneously juxtaposing striking natural light with the moral grey in which our characters reside. The score by Alberto Iglesias is anxious but not obtrusive, beyond some evocative Greek harmonies accompanying dazzling establishing shots. The direction is superb, with the scenery often obscured by close-ups of tired and miserable faces, insisting that the audience feels almost as uncomfortable as the weary travellers. Amini rarely allows the camera to rest, as it circles its targets, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
The first half of the film focuses on a disaster waiting to happen, as the authorities grow closer, while the second picks up the pace as the trio is split, both physically and in allegiance. Not quite as tight as when the characters were together, there is still plenty to enjoy, as Mortensen descends to darker places and Isaac must choose between what is right and his own wellbeing. Particularly fine is a wordless encounter between the two men on a ferry, that perfectly demonstrates the ‘show-don’t-tell’ nature of great cinema. The final act brings nothing new, but is reminiscent of Hitchcock or, more recently, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as events spiral out of control. The climax is well crafted but ultimately a little disappointing, as characters defy what we have come to understand as their defining traits for slightly too neat an ending.
A tight, taught thriller with superb turns from the three leads, The Two Faces of January eschews explosions and feats of physicality for psychological tension and dramatic layering. On the evidence of this and Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac seems destined for great things, and Amini’s direction displays a confidence that belies his inexperience.