5 June 2014

Review: The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, StudioCanal, 2014)

B+

The Two Faces of January 
2014, 96mins, 12
Director: Hossein Amini
Writer (s): Hossein Amini, Patricia Highsmith (Novel) 
Cast includes: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, Yigit Ozsener 
UK Release Date: 16th May 2014 

Hossein Amini’s “The Two Faces of January” is being served to audiences as an obvious counter-programming option; a maturely envisaged thriller in thrall to classical Hollywood etiquette. With most cinemas undergoing a period of intense blockbuster saturation, “The Two Faces of January” delivers an understated and refreshingly character driven alternative, marking a supremely confident directorial bow for Amini. It’s impeccably solid fare, peppered with flourishes of incredible tension and intrigue, yet assembled with a traditional framework in mind. Amini makes it easy to become invested in the fraught three-hander, brought to life with nuance by Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and a career best Kirsten Dunst.  It’s a joy to encounter a film this polished, without ever feeling the weight of overwrought showmanship or excessive style seep into the experience.

Expatriate Rydal (Oscar Isaac) makes a workable living from manipulating tourists in Athens, using his knowledge of the area and linguistic fluency to profitable yet deceitful effect. Unenthused by the prospect of returning home, Rydal encounters wealthy married couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst), seeing in them the opportunity to turn some quick coin. Despite successfully seducing them with his specific brand of tourism, Rydal is thrown into the midst of their lives when he becomes complicit in the murder of a PI, sent to hunt Chester by unhappy stateside clients. Fleeing Athens, Rydal agrees to help Chester and Colette return home for a price, but not before a sinister rapport begins to fester.


Originally penned as a novel by Patricia Highsmith in 1964, “The Two Faces of January” unsurprisingly comes across as old-fashioned. However despite grounding in familiar genre territory, Amini ensures the feature is never stale, keeping the plot’s contortions alive through strong casting decisions and a precisely trained edit. At a trim 96 minutes “The Two Faces of January” doesn't have an ounce of fat on its bones; each sequence economically designed to further character and a festering foreign heat. The sparse, often brutally beautifully Greek landscapes encourage an aura of nervous alienation, Amini stranding his wealthy American couple in a land they can’t comprehend, with only Isaac’s suspicious tour guide to navigate the territory. It’s a set-up that automatically imbues the product with a jittery, paranoid undercurrent, rarely relieved over the tight runtime. There’s a simplistic genius to the subdued way “The Two Faces of January” conjures tension. It’s a plot dictated almost totally by unsettling glances, unspoken truths and oppressively empty (yet serenely photographed) environments. At no point is any character meant to feel comfortable, and thanks to his eerie use of space and well selected close-ups, Amini translates such unease into our viewing experience.

The cast articulate growing mistrust commendably, especially Dunst who becomes increasingly fragile and sympathetic as the story unwinds. Mortensen and Isaac have shades of mystery to manipulate, neither willing to open up completely, but Dunst’s Colette is a consummate victim of circumstance. Dressed radiantly, the “Spider-Man” star collapses authentically, emoting desperation with uncharacteristic humanity. It seems with the input of a mature film-maker, the actress has unseen depths. Mortensen and Isaac are less revelatory, but that’s primarily because we expect more from them. Without overselling the scepticism surrounding their respective characters, they share the duties of hero and villain equally. Amini ties everything up quite resonantly come the finish, but watching the actors silently psychoanalyse each other is an unlikely joy. Both men are able to exhibit bursts of predatory intelligence and vulnerability, keeping questions of their ultimate moral positioning unanswered.


The stringent editing exhibited benefits “The Two Faces of January” enormously. Every beat feels calculated and necessary. As a result there are virtually no lulls, and whilst conceptually unspectacular, Amini solicits anticipation out of some fabulously mundane scenarios. The highlight involves separate queues of travellers being inspected by policemen. Nothing much happens, but Amini’s skilful use of close-ups (every bead of sweat and quivering lip is registered) and graceful cutting render the threat frighteningly real. In less adept hands “The Two Faces of January” could be discredited as derivative or slow, but Amini has a knack for timing his pay-offs, cultivating a milieu possessed by maleficence . Consideration and film-making literacy punctuate the picture entire, meaning that whilst it never threatens to attempt anything radical; “The Two Faces of January” is a feast of aesthetic and storytelling quality. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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