The Two Faces of January is a classical told crime caper centered around a pair of on-the-lamb scalawags and the one vixen they both are vying for. Directed by Drive scribe Hossein Amini and starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, January is a film that relies entirely on engaged, rapturous performances and, while much more slow burning than edge of your seat, delivers on that front mightily.
Here, Mortensen is Chester MacFarland, a wealthy con artist with a thick billfold and a handsome wardrobe, chased through the din of countless European cities by shadows and connected private detectives. He’s a cautious charmer. A snake undoubtedly. From his designer shades to the first-rate cut of his gib, he’s a man who demands admiration. At least, at first glance. Getting to know Chester is part of the game that Amini plans. Seeing the depravity to which he lowers himself, part of the tragedy. As Chester drains bottles, the man as suave as seersucker fades into an angry mule of a man, kicking aimlessly at the world around. Like with any role, Mortensen commits entirely, crafting a petty, often cowardly man that still isn’t beyond the reach of sympathy.
Dunst as Chester’s lovably rosy – though ultimately dim and complacent – wife is better suited as a fatted calf than a partner in crime. Don’t take that as a knock on her performance – which actually is quite solid – but a statement on her character. She’s the gold prize awarded on the pedestal somehow caught up amongst the peloton. She’s a trophy to be enjoyed after the victory lap that has found herself thick in the sweatfields of the race. Suited to costly champagne and shiny bangles, their recent life on the run is undoubtedly getting to her.
When an American traveler living as a Athenian tour guide, Rydal (Isaac), mistakes Chester for his own father, he offers his services as a guide of all trades. Immediately taken with Rydal, Dunst’s Colette accepts empathically, a union that intensifies when Rydal mistakenly witnesses Chester killing, err man slaughtering, off the PI hot on their trail. Matching Mortensen jab-for-jab, Isaac showcases his own knack for understated ferocity, bringing another misunderstood – though less misanthropic – character to life.
With their paths incontrovertibly tangled, the party seeks passage to a nearby country – any nearby country – and a brighter tomorrow. This narrative turn necessitates a fundamental move in something as basic as the nature of the film’s genre and makes for a much more flatlined stretch.
Once Chester, Colette and Rydal escape Athens, January turns from a broiling Hitchcockian thriller to a turgid road movie. And though their languishing trip over rail, bus lines and cobbled streets is imbued with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of the Greek coast and Marcel Zyskind‘s penitent eye, the affair quickly bores. As any train passenger would agree, train-side has the potential to be occasionally stunning but the repetitive character all but serves as nature’s Ambien. In those tedious middle minutes, I caught my head sinking into my chest and my eyes fluttering closed. It isn’t until the group begins to properly implode on themselves that things begin to heat up and intensify, leading to a fully satisfying though not unfamiliar final third.
Bearing no resemblance to some other projects he worked on (Drive) January proves the Iranian Amini has no desire to be written into a corner. Totally missing is the stylized, progressive zest of Drive, replaced by a humbled, deferential, even old fashion stance towards filmmaking. This isn’t a man trying to reinvent the wheel so much as marvel at the perfection of it.
What it does share in common is a collected sense of muted, disquieting scene work. His characters are flawed, moody but not without their charms. As Colette and Rydal’s flirtation turns from simmer to boil, Chester’s wavering acumen is a synonym of circumstance. As a writer, Amini confirms that more can be said by not saying anything at all. Though he doesn’t set out to affirm that all men are redeemable, in a roundabout way, he has. But the bumps along the road are many and the emotions are as fair-weather as often as they are belligerent. If I had a nickel for every time someone let a scowl slip across their face, I’d be 85 cents richer.
The film is deliberately set to the pace of Alberto Iglesias‘ smart score. His jumpy sonatas offers an appropriate overture for Amini’s drab thriller, giving it life in spots, taking it away in other. A somber, reflective romp like this almost demands Iglesias’s score to channel such an exacting and hectic mood. As further evidence of the monotony of the sagging middle parts, Iglesias’s musical touch fades to melancholic whimpering. Oboes croon like a large dog pining for attention. It’s not until his strings dash forward and the notes crescendo that the film does again.
With more in common with the films of the 1960s than the films of 2014, The Two Faces of January has a tendency to turn the pot to a low broil and lean on the actor’s oft mesmerizing performances to guide it through the humdrum elements. Nevertheless, there’s much to love about Amini’s effort and even more to admire. Top to bottom, January is an uncommon romantic thriller; a pretty picture cemented by actors on top of their game.