He's penned the adapted screenplays for period romances like The Wings of the Dove and The Four Feathers, as well as the blood-splattered love story Drive. Now, admired screenwriter Hossein Amini adds director to his credentials with The Two Faces of January, a thriller that starts strong, but finishes sloppy.
Like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train before it, The Two Faces of January is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel. Even without knowing this, you might sense it, as the story involves the fateful meeting of strangers, jealously, blackmail and of course, murder. Oscar Isaac stars as Rydal, an educated and street-smart American who's hiding from life by playing tour guide to gullible tourists in 1962 Athens. There, he crosses paths with Chester and Collette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), two American tourists with class, apparent wealth, and a secret. Intrigued by each other, the trio hits the town on a night that ends with bloodshed and tenuous trust. From there, the MacFarlands must depend on this shifty stranger to get them out of Athens without being arrested, and Rydal must watch his back.
The Two Faces of January quickly establishes itself as a tale of two con men, Isaac's and Mortensen's. It's a dynamic that is rich with tension, and gets added spice by Rydal's Oedipal complex (in Greece, how fitting!) See, Chester reminds Rydal of the recently departed dad he loathed. And naturally Rydal is attracted to Chester's lovely young wife Collette. The smiling MacFarlands soon turn to sniping, and one night on the run becomes a mar on their marriage. For the first two-thirds of the film, each scene ratchets up the stakes and tension as this trio's desires come into conflict, spurring rivalry, jealously, outrage, and lies.
The leads are each stellar in this tightly choreographed dance of suspense. Viggo Mortensen is convincingly charming when Chester seems a carefree American mogul. But when the skeletons in his closet come tumbling out, Mortensen masterfully turns from jovial to menacing, his smile cutting through his face like a switchblade. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast in a role that is essentially a Hitchcock blonde. Amini owes a lot to Alfred Hitchcock, from his source material to his themes, and even string-heavy orchestral score. Dunst is warmth and the sweet promise of sex, but there's a secret haunting her eyes. Fittingly, she's lovingly swaddles in warms colors that suggest romance and slyly belie the film's ominous tone.
Oscar Isaac makes for an alluring con artist, swindling tourists through exchange rate conversions they refuse to understand. But once he meets his faux father and lust object, there's a vibrant electricity to narrative. This trio shares an incredible chemistry, complex with conflict, desire, and distrust. Mortensen and Dunst make a believable, and at times enviable, May-December couple. But once Rydal enters the picture, flirtations suggest trouble in paradise. Passive aggressions grow to outright aggression, and the plot crosses a point of no return. And here is where The Two Faces of January goes from a pitch-perfect Hitchcock homage to a mediocre crime thriller--in its final act.
I won't give away the details of the finale. I will say this: based on the story, I thought the film was closing in on its final five minutes. But I was only an hour into a 96-minute movie. What could possibly fill the last 36 minutes? I was confounded, then disappointed, as the plot unraveled its well-earned tension through a prolonged final act filled with plot points that increasingly strained credulity. In those 36-minutes, Amini burns the atmosphere of danger he so carefully constructed through duplicitous dialogue, subtle performances and smartly cut scenes. The film takes off at a graceful sprint--swift and suspenseful--but ends in a sprawling face plant, lousy with sentimentality and cliché.
Playing close to the Alfred Hitchcock playbook, Hossein Amini managed to make 2/3 of a great suspense movie. There's nothing terribly original in its execution, but it's engaging and even sexy. Frankly, I wish he'd left it there at the hour mark, where it would have been shockingly short--but at least thoroughly exciting. Instead, The Two Faces of January barrels through a fourth act, where secrets are shouted, action is slapped on, and all the good will earned is lost. It's a real shame. I'd actually recommend you watch The Two Faces of January for a satisfying thrill ride, but with the caveat you shut it off at the hour mark.