Adapted from the best-selling novel of the same by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote “Strangers on a Train,” the basis for Hitchcock’s classic), and directed by Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini, The Two Faces of January is a brightly painted portrait drenched in noirish tendencies.
The Two Faces of January begins in the picturesque city of Athens, Greece. An age-mismatched couple are vacationing, and to the casual observer they appear to be picture perfect. Colette (Kirsten Dunst from All Good Things) full of smiles and glee; Chester (A Dangerous Method‘s Viggo Mortensen) handsome and nearly regal always wanting to make his wife happy. But there is a dark side to their story–one full of dishonest dealings, mobsters, and even murder. The staging of such seen through the eyes of gentle-natured con artist/tour guide Rydal (Inside Llewyn Davis‘ Oscar Isaac). But Rydal is not an innocent bystander caught up in Chester and Colette’s bad deeds. Oh no, The Two Faces of January has three main characters who are nearly equal to one another in unfortunate circumstances and bad dealings. The Two Faces of January is shown through a brightly lit landscape, only to delve into the deeper, more corrupt and sinful makings of man. It is noir, without the shadows and plays of light.
What The Two Faces of January has is a story that grips you from the onset because of its main characters. Chester is intriguing as a man on the run with his much younger bride. A man desperate to keep the fortune he has acquired through dishonest means. Chester remains sympathetic to the viewer, even as his lies grow bigger, and darker as the film progresses–not to mention his penchant for the bottle that leads to jealousy, rage, and pathetic tirades. This can be attributed to the performance by Viggo Mortensen who is outstanding to watch disintegrate in the film. Than there is Colette, the innocent woman who has been forced to live a life on the run because of her husband. Is she all that innocent, though? Colette may come across as the victim but there is a femme fatale layer to her character that makes an appearance in a sly comment, glance, or twitch of the eye. Within the characters you find the dichotomy at work between the old and the young; the experienced, and the naive. Chester is the man Rydal will become, unless he can find redemption along the way. No one is clean and neat in The Two Faces of January. Quite to the contrary, actually. Help comes in the form of receiving something additional for oneself, and each character knows how to play their game well–some fare better than others, as it should be in a movie full of greed, murder, and deceit.
The Two Faces of January is not a perfect noirish thriller. There are choices made that divert from the standard noir themes and elements that are teased upon but not realized. The most obvious being Colette’s lack of femme fatale-ness because she never has the opportunity to act on many ideas put forward that could alter the events of the story should she do something. Instead, Colette is merely a prop for two men to fight over, and to use as a method to sabotage one another by various means. The decision to soften and nearly remove the femme fatale creates a break from noir conventions in the film. One begins to expect events to play out as they would in a noir, only to have that belief shattered as the plot moves forward. It is not necessarily a negative occurrence, as it does make for the unexpected to occur and keep one on their toes as to where the film is going.
The craving for a modern noir remains, though. The Two Faces of January manages to play with noir themes while bathing the screen in bright outdoor light. The beiges of Greece, the lightness of the clothing, the use of bright outdoor light and then drenching the viewer in an underground cavern of ruins amidst darkness. It is all very deliberate, focused, and works perfectly within the not-so-perfect film that is The Two Faces of January. Entertaining the movie is, and layered with enough suspense to satiate. The Two Faces of January enjoys showing the ugly side of beauty, and does so with style and form even as the ending begs for all to be forgiven where forgiveness should not be an option.