The Two Faces of January is set in 1962, but it could just have easily been made in the same year, or even a decade earlier. The film – from Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini – is a close facsimile of the thrillers of half a century ago, to the point where it could be a lesser Hitchcock. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement – more a reasonable imitation of Hitchcock’s work (this isn’t especially surprising, as its adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, whose writing was first adapted by Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train).
The similarities go beyond the formal choices – though there are plenty of those, right down to the old-school score – right down to the storyline. The Two Faces of January throws a trio of ex-pat Americans together in the midst of sunny Greece. Married couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst) pair up with rakish con-artist tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) after an inadvertent murder sets them on the run. It’s part noir, part European thriller, and it hews so closely to the films of that earlier era that you’re surprised when, say, Dunst snaps off her bra, simply because it wouldn’t have made it past Code censors.
There are a number of twists, but few real surprises to be found in the screenplay. We come to realise that perhaps Chester is less innocent than we first believed, our loyalties shifting gradually over the first half hour. Amini handles this shift well, but makes an odd stylistic decision to disrupt the flow of the film by regularly jerking us out of its gently tense pacing, as though we’re restlessly slipping in and out of sleep (these cuts are often accompanied by someone lurching awake). It’s an interesting decision, but it works against the material, undercutting the suspense Amini is trying so hard to develop.
Suspense is often beside the point in the classic Hollywood thrillers, though. Often the real point of these pictures is to showcase their stars’ chemistry – Bogie and Bacall, Grant and Marie Saint – and perhaps that’s the intention of The Two Faces of January. The growing attraction between Isaac and Dunst’s characters could have given the film that ‘pop,’ but the romantic tension, while present, feels duller than it should. Isaac is fantastic, though – this man deserves to be a bona fide movie star already, and both Dunst and Mortensen do good work. I must say, though, I find Mortensen much more convincing in stoicism than wretchedness; he tends to overplay the latter (see also: Carlito’s Way).
I think I’m underselling the film. It’s more than a mere homage to fifties thrillers. The Grecian setting is beautiful, the period trappings immaculate. Also, did I mention Oscar Isaac? Amini uses the character’s accoutrements to emphasise their personalities: the ouroboros ‘immortality’ charm that Chester purchases for Colette (and she leaves behind in a taxi); the way Chester refuses to remove his increasingly grubby white jacket, while Rydal doesn’t think twice before wrapping his around Colette; and the suitcase full of cash that Chester protects at the expense of all else. It’s character development in microcosm, demonstrating an appreciated attention to detail.
The best moments of The Two Faces of January, like any great thriller, come in the final act, once all secrets are revealed. There are two gripping sequences here, where the tension that never quite accumulated in the first two thirds of the film finally rears its head. There are clear stakes, and classically composed suspense sequences – at an immigration station, an airport and an extended riff of The Third Man through the streets of Turkey. Like any classic thriller, it ends as the Production Code dictates it must – the bad guys get what they deserve, and we get whatever semblance of a happy ending we can manage. I wouldn’t have it any other way.