The Two Faces Of January

After the pleasant surprise of the low-budget ‘80s period piece Cold In July, I was feeling pretty optimistic about this 1962 period piece starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.

Which is just how life sets you up for the big falls.

In The Two Faces of January, Isaac plays a grifter named Rydal who’s scamming young tourists out of their money (and presumably other things of value) in Greece. Mid-scam of a young school girl (Dais Bevan) he spies Chester (Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Dunst) and strikes up a friendship of the sort that can only occur when a good confidence game is at work.

Things take a dark turn early on when a threatening stranger shows up to threaten Chester and Colette, and that’s all I’ll reveal, because a few desultory semi-twists is about all this narrative’s got going for it.

And that’s kind of a shame: It’s a good story; I have no reason to believe that the Patricia Hightower novel on which this is based is not a good read. The acting is fine. The cinematography is okay, though Greece looks like the bunch of barren rocks it actually is rather than the exciting, exotic locale portrayed in so many past films.

It’s not hard to figure out why it fizzles: The movie is not so much a character arc (or series of arcs) but more of a character reveal (or series of reveals). But as we learned from Frozen, revealing characters for plot convenience without hinting at their true nature, or even presenting them falsely (how they behave when no one’s watching) is very unsatisfying.

And that’s this movie in a nutshell. As we learn more and more about Chester and Colette, it seems to invalidate everything we learned about them previously, and so feels less like a twist and more like a cheat.

Furthermore, writer/director Hossein Amini (co-writer of Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman) focuses on this stuff to the point of neglecting good potential action/suspense sequences, taking them down a notch until the final scene which, I think, is meant to recall The Third Man but you really just want to end so you can get up and pee.

Especially if you got that 44 ounce soda.

It’s actually not that long and it actually doesn’t drag out that much, really, probably just a little over 90 minutes excluding credits, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t feel tight. It feels like a lot of missed opportunities.

The acting’s good, though. The music was, well, kind of weird. Not in what it was so much as where they chose not to have any. I think that may have contributed to the lack of suspense in places.

We were pretty meh about it. I don’t think it was that bad so much as disappointing after the pleasant surprise that was Cold In July.

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