The Two Faces of January

Terence Gavish
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  • Amazon Customer 2 years ago
    19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Mortensen and Isaac shine in an old-fashioned suspense film, August 30, 2014
    Amazon Customer (Maryland, USA) –

    This review is from: The Two Faces of January (Amazon Instant Video)
    This is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, the Iranian-born British screenwriter of such celebrated literary adaptations as The Wings of the Dove and Drive. (He also contributed to rather more coldly remembered pictures, including Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but let us not focus on this.) Here, he adapts The Two Faces of January, a 1964 novel by the late Patricia Highsmith, a novelist whose macabre stories and unusual personal life continue to fascinate readers worldwide. Oscar Isaac portrays Rydal, an American living abroad in Greece, earning his living as a charismatic tour guide and small-time confidence artist. He becomes acquainted with Chester (Viggo Mortensen), a wealthy man on holiday with his beautiful wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Chester, however, has a past: he earned his fortune swindling investors with a story of a nonexistent oil field. His past catches up with him in the form of a gun-toting private investigator. After a violent late-night encounter with the private eye, Chester and his wife find themselves on the run in a foreign land they do not know. Rydal decides to help them, though he does not understand at first the complex and dangerous ramifications of his choice.

    This is an old-fashioned and slowly burning suspense film, elegant and involving. The locations throughout both urban and rural Greece lend themselves to sumptuous photography, and the period sixties costuming is eye-catching. The performances, too, are strong, which is not a surprise considering the caliber of the cast. Mortensen is among the finest actors of his generation, able to rivet and convey the depth of a moment, of a feeling, with a single glance or gesture. His character in this film is a deceitful man trying to disguise his increasing desperation behind a veil of practiced suavity. He is matched and complemented by Isaac, who also maintains a pleasant and teasing ambiguity: as played by the rising star, his character seems to be at once earnestly in over his head and craftily weighing his options. Dunst’s role is not as nuanced, though she achieves a Grace Kelly-esque glamor.

    Overall, the film falls a couple levels short of the twisting, turning, and creepily sensual resonance of arguably the finest Highsmith adaptation, the 1999 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley which transformed Jude Law into an international star. Still, moment for moment, Amini’s picture pleases the senses and engages the mind, and it is an undeniable treat to see Mortensen and Isaac circle one another, lying and toying and ultimately angling for the jugular.


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  • Darren 2 years ago
    18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Noir among the ruins, September 7, 2014

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    Familiar territory: “The Two Faces of January” is about rich and morally bankrupt Americans feasting on the carcass of post-war Europe, much like the miserable woman who wrote the novel on which this film is based. Patricia Highsmith’s characters, members of America’s leisure class, are not always respectable and are certainly always morally compromised even before her plots set them into motion. But they always seem grand and charming at first, don’t they? While this story isn’t part of the “Ripliad’, its themes are similar to those books, and “Rydal” (Oscar Issac) is almost a rewrite of the young version of Tom Ripley, with the exception that this young man comes from respectable money, unlike working-class Tom. However, genteel origins don’t make Issac any nicer than his literary doppelganger: he supplements a scanty income as a tour guide in Athens by shortchanging on restaurant tabs young tourist girls whom he charms. Anything to avoid going back home to the States. He even missed his father’s funeral. When he sees married couple Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst walk by at the Parthenon, he glares covetously at Mortensen, and we assume at first that the usual Highsmithian homoeroticism is up on-deck, but not this time, as it turns out: both men are firmly hetero. Isaac regards Mortensen, with his splendid cream-colored summer suit, merely as a mark. Any prurient interests are directed toward Dunst.

    But that’s all I got with this character, and I think it’s a serious flaw in the movie. Isaac’s Rydal is just too opaque and inconsistent. I don’t know if that’s Highsmith’s fault (haven’t read the book) or writer/director Hossein Amini’s fault. It’s certainly not Isaac’s fault. This is a tremendous new talent on the scene, and, without his “Inside Llewyn Davis” beard, he reminded me of a Godfather-era Al Pacino. (By the way, if you want to see him really shine, watch that Coen Brothers movie.) One moment he’s a charming young American kid, another he’s a sleazy small-con operator, and later he fancies himself macho enough to tell Mortensen to “lay off” when the latter is arguing with his wife. That’s one contradictory facet too many, and once the movie’s crisis gets them on the road to Crete, he continues to shapeshift between these different personas rather than settle down to an essence. Isaac isn’t the two-faced Janus alluded to by the title; he’s a multitude of little crescent faces. We also don’t know what motivates him. Cash? Dunst’s knickers? Both? What? I suppose he considers the older American couple as surrogate parents, but, despite clues at the beginning of the film, this angle isn’t much pursued until the final act, and in any case his desire for Dunst adds a creep-factor that’s somewhat mitigated by Mortensen being about 20 years older than Dunst. Oh who knows — it’s all more clear in the book, doubtless. I think Amini overdid the ambiguity through most of the picture.

    Mortensen and Dunst are easier birds. Mortensen is splendid here — best performance in years. He has dropped that annoying whispering thing that he used to do, and speaks with the clear and easy authority of a man long used to the Good Life, while also being careful to include a slight twang in his voice that indicates origins of a more humble nature. He also convinces as a shambling, drunken, jealous wreck. Dunst isn’t given too much to do, but the situation doesn’t really require much from her, as she’s caught between these two panther-like con artists who keep circling around her. I’ll say this, though — my god is she good-looking. She’s aging like a fine wine. She utterly rocks those early-Sixties’ vintage summer dresses.

    The film features stunning location shooting in Greece, Crete, and Istanbul. In Crete, they even shot footage in and around Knossos. What a magnificently ugly place Crete is: jagged rocks jutting up from soil-less bedrock. Crete once had richly wooded hills until the ancient people of the Minoan civilization cut all the trees down, turning the island into a moonscape. Along with Easter Island, Crete stands as a silent warning against indiscriminate exploitation of the land. Yeah, this has nothing to do with the plot, but the island is featured in the movie so I’m throwing it in there.

    4 out of 5. Will appeal to anyone who values mood, setting, and story. You know — the old values that used to matter.


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  • Andrew Ellington 2 years ago
    6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Nothing like the wrong time for a confession…, April 3, 2015
    Andrew Ellington (I’m kind of everywhere) –

    This review is from: The Two Faces of January (DVD)
    On the cover of the DVD for ‘The Two Faces of January’, it boldly declares that this film is from ‘The Producer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the writer of Drive’. By that description, you’d expect this film to be outstanding.

    This raises the question; why doesn’t anybody know about this movie?

    The reason for that is because despite having a producer, writer and source that have all, in the past, created something memorable, exciting and iconic, together they produced something forgettable. I’m not saying at all that it is a bad movie, because it’s actually pretty good, but it’s extremely forgettable. There is nothing about this film that stays with you. It’s all rather nice and yet…nice all too often gets lost in the shuffle.

    ‘The Two Faces of January’ tells the story of Chester MacFarland (if that is your real name) and his wife Colette who are in Athens, pretending to be on vacation while in actuality they are hiding out from angry investors who are after Chester for stealing their money. While in Athens, the couple runs into a young con-man, Rydal, who takes a liking to Colette and finds a way to squeeze himself into their lives. Once he witnesses what he assumes is something rather innocent, Rydal becomes a major part of the MacFarland’s lives, and then things get dangerous.

    I just wish they felt more dangerous.

    You know that feeling you get when a film is going somewhere and yet you never really feel that urgency to follow it because it’s not really ‘going anywhere’? That’s the feeling that ‘The Two Faces of January’ gives me. It’s never wholly compelling, so despite some nice performances (Dunst is surprisingly dull here, but both Isaac and Mortensen are giving it their all) and some beautiful scenery, the film feels overly long and drool despite only being 90 minutes long. It also fumbles some character development in the later half, pitting the two men against one another in a way that seems to set them up for some rich character analysis and then throwing it all out the window for a ridiculous finale (like, Chester would NOT have done that) that almost adds a campiness to the film, which was striving so hard to be taken seriously.

    I wonder how this story (which is interesting but nowhere near as compelling as Highsmith’s other stories) would have fared better in the hands of a director who understood how to build the tension it needed, but unfortunately first time director Hossein Amini isn’t up to that task. It all feels very generic, one note and somewhat cheap; like a TV movie. He has a range of writing credits to his name, most of which are actually impressive (he wrote ‘Wings of the Dove’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Jude’), but ‘The Two Faces of January’ marks his first time in the director’s chair.

    Maybe he should have stuck to penning the screenplay, and then passed the directing duties to someone with vision.


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