‘The Two Faces of January’ is a slow-burner that tests your loyalties

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The Two Faces of January
Written & Directed by Hossein Amini
UK/France/USA, 2014

 

Guilt is a powerful motivator.  Its nagging voice can corrupt even the noblest of intentions.  In the case of The Two Faces of January, a son’s guilt leads him into a questionable alliance in which he becomes inextricably trapped.  There are twists and turns, jealousy and lust, but the real pleasure of a film like this is watching how far people will go to silence those nagging voices.  Even if it means losing everything they care about.

It’s a misnomer to call the characters in January ‘con artists.’  Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is simply a crooked stock broker with a long list of duped investors.  He and his scandalously young wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), have been throwing around some serious cash on their European getaway.  Serious enough to draw the attention of an American expatriate living as a tour guide in Greece.  Rydal (Oscar Issac) is the kind of tour guide whose entire group consists of beautiful women with lots of disposable income.  He charms them—wines them and dines them—always making sure to skim a nice commission for his hospitality.  He’s less a con artist than a lazy opportunist.

Rydal is immediately drawn to the lovely Colette, of course, but he’s much more pre-occupied with Chester, who bears a striking resemblance to his dead father.  That’s when the noose starts to tighten around Rydal’s neck.  He never returned home for his father’s funeral, a fact he can’t seem to forget no matter how many false smiles he flashes to adoring tourists.  When a powerful stool pigeon tracks Chester down, Rydal is only too happy to help his surrogate father.  As romantic tensions between the 3 morally-challenged partners reach a critical mass, it becomes a race to see if Rydal can escape his guilty conscience before he outlives his usefulness to Chester.

Viggo

January isn’t a classic suspense-thriller, by any means, but it functions nicely as a slow-burning cautionary tale.  Working from the source novel by Patricia Highsmith, writer-director, Hossein Amini’s adaptation captures an overwhelming sense of time of place.  Much like the young Rydal, who recites endless historical tidbits about his adopted country, this movie is obsessed with the past.  The unforgiving landscape, beautifully photographed by Marcel Zyskind, is both a safe haven and a graveyard.  Characters shamble along desolate roads, the physical ruins of a past civilization strewn about them.  Much like Hitchcock was fond of selecting evocative locations to inspire his storytelling, Amini uses every isolated outpost to luxuriate in the possibilities of what will happen when the ghosts finally catch up.

It’s hot… the kind of heat that only a stiff glass of whiskey can quench.  As Chester, Mortensen clutches his shot glass like it’s the only thing keeping him sane.  It’s a terrific performance, as he perfectly captures the sense of uneasiness pervading the entire film.  Chester’s feelings for Colette are genuine, but his true motivations are hidden behind a pained smile and the trinkets he uses to placate her unhappiness.

ruins

The biggest flaw for January is that it fails to engender the emotional depth required to fully draw us into this world.  We remain outsiders at all times, analyzing each character’s sideways glance and calculating pause.  Rydal, especially, is a bit of a blank slate beyond the confines of his daddy issues.  It effectively explains his motivations and adds some nice texture, but we need a bit more insight to feel truly invested in his fate.  Chester fares somewhat better in this regard, as Mortensen instills this ruthless viper with enough slimy charm to make you inexplicably root for him.  The fun of the movie, then, doesn’t come from emotional release, but in how it constantly tests your loyalties.  You want Rydal to shake loose the cobwebs and take control, but Chester is just too fascinating and smart to be denied.

The Two Faces of January hints at cloak and dagger, but its real charm lies in the mood and atmosphere.  In this arena, characters don’t win; they simply outlast their opponents.  It’s a race to self-destruction and they all crossed the finish line a long time ago.  All they can do now is comb through the ruins for a little loose change.

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