The Two Faces Of January would have been a much more engrossing movie if it had given us much more engrossing characters. Its story is in place; its conflicts, developments and resolutions are all there for the taking. Its setting is magical. Its actors are effervescent and deeply convincing. But by the time the climax comes, we are dangerously aware that we are rooting for two conmen who don’t possess an ounce of integrity.
To be sure, this isn’t a fault with the writer and director, Hossein Amini. He merely adapted a novel. The novel was written by Patricia Highsmith in 1964 (the story is set in the ’60s), and the January in the title refers to the Roman god Janus, whose two faces were said to look both into the past and the future. If we were to take this idea and weave it into this film, we might not find a suitable place for it. Are Chester MacFarland and Rydal meant to represent the same man living simultaneously in parallel dimensions of past and future?
Here, let me elucidate. Chester (Viggo Mortensen) is an investor and a swindler. He’s conned a mob in New York out of their savings and is now in Greece with his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), splurging their stolen riches. The money he carries around in a briefcase, stitched to his hands. He wears the suits of kings and treats Colette like a queen. At a glance they look like a decent American couple on vacation. The question here is: Is Colette in on the scheme? Does she know her husband’s a crook?
Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is probably in his twenties. He’s an American too, but he works in Greece as a tour guide where he cons innocent and beautiful young college girls by acting as a currency bank. He takes their American dollars and gives them Greek drachmas; only the exchange rate is less than accurate. The girls, of course, are unaware. They’re too busy getting swept up in the gesture.
Rydal meets the MacFarlands and decides to take them around Athens. This he does either out of good will, or because he’s startlingly attracted to Colette, who looks at him looking at her, and Chester looks at them both. The night before the MacFarlands intend to leave the country, Chester is paid a visit by a private eye sent by the infuriated mob, who wants their money. Chester kills the PI in self defence and hires Rydal as an accomplice to get them to safety, hopefully to Rome or Venice. The catch here is that neither Rydal nor Colette knows the PI is dead (Rydal stumbles upon Chester lugging the corpse to the PI’s hotel room and Chester sneakily implies the man is drunk).
The rest of the movie is spent on the road, as the trio tries every which way to evade capture. Naturally, truths are told, alliances are formed, suspicions are aroused. All leads to the climax in Turkey where Chester and Rydal run around town, towards each other, away from police, etcetera etcetera. My point is, why should we feel anything for these two men? What have they done to earn our sympathy? Rydal, no doubt, is less guilty than Chester. He is dragged along on a merry chase without really knowing it. But he is, finally, still a conman looking out for his best interests, no one else’s. The Two Faces Of January’s best character is Colette. She’s sandwiched between these two selfish egos and can only scream for her life as they close in around her. That is a perfect formula for sympathy.
Best Moment | The movie’s too unenthusiastic to have a Best Moment.
Worst Moment | The movie’s too unenthusiastic to have a Worst Moment.