‘The Two Faces of January’ cannot sustain a sense of dread

2faceThe Two Faces of January
Written by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Directed by Hossein Amini
USA, United Kingdom, France, 2014

Patricia Highsmith is one of those authors whose body of work the film industry just can’t stop panning for gold. The Two Faces of January is the latest adaptation of one of her books, and it ticks off most of the drinking game check marks we’ve come to expect from her stories: a vivid locale, desire that turns deadly, antagonists bound together by circumstance, numerous double-crosses, and a general mood of darkness in the soul. This is also the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, whose genre screenplays (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman, 47 Ronin) have become a hot Hollywood commodity in recent years. With the help of a capable crew, Hossein has helmed a thoroughly capable film.

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play Chester and Colette, an American couple touring Greece in the early 1960’s. They meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American expat who makes a living scamming the likes of them out of cash. But Rydal is drawn to Colette, and thus wants more than what’s in their pockets. But getting closer to the couple proves dangerous, since they’re actually fleeing a host of people whom Chester swindled out of millions back home. A deadly encounter with a private detective put the trio on the run, and the romantic tension between Rydal and Colette, along with the competitive tension between Rydal and Chester, exacerbates their already-dangerous situation.

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None of the cast is doing extraordinary work here, but they’re all more than up to the game. Mortensen slips into a drawling accent with ease, and he’s always dependable to turn up the intensity when he’s in a bind. Dunst gets to balance her natural aloofness with both playful flirtation and some nerves that are getting ground. Oscar Isaac is quite suddenly in the big leagues, thanks to Inside Llewyn Davis and Star Wars Episode VII, and this film reinforces that he has star bona fides. He perfectly plays the swing the story takes him from being the mysterious stranger at the beginning to the hounded survivalist at the end. His charm is ineffable, all in his effortless, casual manner.

The big issue is that The Two Faces of January feels way too relaxed to be effectively suspenseful. Outside of some brief sequences, danger never seems to be hanging over the characters’ heads. Viewed in isolation from the rest of the film, someone with no knowledge of the plot would likely assume that the scenes of Mortensen, Dunst, and Isaac hanging around (the bulk of the plot is them waiting on some fake passports to be finished) were from a romantic period drama, not a thriller. The movie cannot sustain any sense of dread, which is what would have easily pulled it out of “okay” and into “good” or possibly “great” territory. Even the big setpieces are each a thud, especially the leadenly cliched final chase, which goes down every alley (literally) you expect it to. The Two Faces of January is the cinematic equivalent of a disposable airport thriller. Which isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it’s not something I can give an enthusiastic recommendation for, either.

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