As film directors go, it’s hard to escape the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock.
The iconically portly Brit directed more than 50 films during his lifetime with an impressive batting average in terms of outright classics: Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest. Many of his works had a deeply Freudian subtext to them, inspiring directors as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and M. Night Shyamalan.
Most can only seek to mimic Hitchcock’s technical brilliance – even Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island relied heavily on a selection of visual flourishes. It takes a sort of alchemy to truly emulate the Master of Suspense. Having found ideal source material amidst the works of Patricia Highsmith – she penned the novel Strangers on a Train – Hossein Amini is making an impressive go of it.
The Two Faces of January is a European-set thriller based around the convergence of three characters, small-time hustler Rydal (Oscar Issac), and Mr. and Mrs. MacFarland, businessman Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst).
When their paths cross at the Acropolis in Athens, Rydal offers to act as tour guide for the clearly affluent American couple. Rydal is immediately smitten with the radiant Colette, though his callowness doesn’t extend to acting upon his attraction; especially not with Chester present.
Unbeknownst to Rydal, Chester’s reasons for being in Greece are not so different from his own, and, when Chester’s money-making schemes go awry, he and Rydal find themselves locked into a spiral of co-dependence.
Isaac’s Rydal is darkly handsome but never fully sympathetic as a protagonist: the relationship with his prestigious, recently deceased father is our only hint at motivation. Similarly, Mortensen’s Chester reminds us of a Ripley gone to seed, a weak, self-indulgent man who survives only on his watchfulness and cunning. Dunst, meanwhile, is radiant but more an object of desire than flesh and blood.
If Dunst is very much a Hitchcock blonde, Isaac displays similar traits here to his role in Inside Llewyn Davis – Rydal feels very much like the innocent who does wrong – while Mortensen plays upon the morally ambiguous persona he established in films like Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. Their character’s parallels extend far beyond their matching cream-colored jackets.
First-time director Amini focuses on subtext over style – from Chester’s drunken, paranoiac journey through the labyrinthine backstreets of a Cretan village to a tense trip to an immigration office. The film opens with Rydal relating the myth of Theseus.
The power play between him and Chester may leave you wondering at many points which of the two men is in the position of Minotaur.
Patricia Highsmith is perhaps best known as the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Amini’s film bears many similarities to Anthony Minghella’s take on that book. The visuals are clean and sun-drenched, the color palette muted– it’s easy to imagine Two Faces of January in black and white – and the storytelling lean and efficient. It’s not long before Rydal and the MacFarlands are on the run together.
With its stirring Herrmanesque musical score and a final sequence that memorably recalls The Third Man, The Two Faces of January feels like it a very minor classic – if only of a very niche genre. Of all Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the film most resembles The Man Who Knew Too Much, his story of betrayal and pursuit, which opens amidst the souks of Morocco.
Time will tell if this comparison holds true, but Amini is definitely a talent to watch.