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The Two Faces of January seems like an apt directorial debut for Hossein Amini, the veteran scripter who adapted 2011’s Drive. Here, he takes on the a book by Patricia Highsmith, whose noirish literary works have been translated by directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Minghella. Drive, despite its marketing as an action flick, is a surprisingly slow burner, dominated by quiet that becomes increasingly punctuated by violence. For his freshman helm, Amini decelerates even further.
In other words, the film’s a bore. The Two Faces of January stars Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst as Chester and Collette MacFarland, a wealthy, handsome couple touring Greece in 1962. They catch the attention of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American who works as a tour guide, because Chester reminds Rydal of his late father. (Hots for Collette soon follow.) The trio becomes friendly, then tangled in scandal—turns out that Chester’s into some shady business, and after a hired goon shows up at his hotel door demanding cash, Rydal catches his new friend dragging the unconscious man down the hallway.
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Because Rydal is a bit of a hustler himself, he agrees to help the MacFarlands escape Greece after Chester shares a few details about the trouble he’s in. Lying is the language shared by this trio, however, and—wait for it—things are worse than they seem.
Yes, it’s all common fodder for a thriller, from the exotic location to the buckets of money to the greedy stranger who’s willing to get involved, but not involved involved. Of course, the question of who can be trusted nags at each as well. Very Hitchcockian, indeed.
These elements suggest a permutation that can’t fail—or can’t fail with at least a few exciting and gasp-inducing moments. And January offers just that: a few. As Rydal and the MacFarlands travel the islands and discover that they haven’t been keeping as low a profile as they believed, well, not much comes of it except some intense glances and heated conversation. Not one of these characters is terribly interesting or distinctive; you don’t even get a solid idea of why Chester’s on the run. (For “swindling some people,” according to Collette. Fascinating!)
The throwback time period seems to serve no purpose other than making it seem normal that tourists like the MacFarlands would dress in their Sunday best while sightseeing. Fedoras and tailored dresses may be fetching, but when they’re the most riveting part of a film, it’s a sign that you should have stayed home and watched Mad Men.
The Two Faces of January opens Oct. 3 at Bethesda Row Cinema.