A throwback to psychological thrillers such as North By Northwest and Chinatown, Hossein Amini’s eagerly awaited directorial debut is the perfect vehicle for him to display his command over on-screen narratives. Amini’s control of pace and a taut screenplay lifts the film from being a rather conventional thriller to a more nuanced, edge of your seat psychological introspection of human behaviour. He proves that the devil really is in the detailing.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name, Amini’s prowess and affinity towards creating screenplays that bear roots in the literary canon is remarkable. He manages to find just the perfect balance of staying true to the original work as well as infusing a dash of originality that radically changes our perception of the original. Two Faces of January may have been borne out of Highsmith, but the film is very much Hosseini’s child.
The film opens with Rydal (played by Oscar Isaac), a tour guide in Greece with a penchant for Greek mythology and taking a ‘commission’ from tourists who do not have the benefit of speaking the native tongue. He chances upon the American tourist couple, the MacFarlands (played by Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst) and is quite taken by them. Rather, he is quite taken by the aura of the female MacFarland, Colette. The male MacFarland, Chester, happens to be an occupational hazard. Unable to tear himself away from the couple, Rydal is unwittingly drawn into circumstances that he doesn’t quite know how to get out of.
Rather than the superficial ‘twists and turns’ of the thriller genre, Amini is interested in the psychological aspects of human behaviour – what do the characters really mean when they say something, or choose not to say it. This subtle examination of the human psyche sets Two Faces of January apart from your typical potboiler. The film’s focus is the human mind – how we normally think, how we invariably think in certain misconstrued situations and what consequences that might have on us and the people around us, especially in strenuous situations. Furthermore, Amini’s unconditional love of literature is very apparent in his screenplay. The film carries through prominent aspects of Greek mythology as extended metaphors such as – the legend of the Minotaur and the need for sons to overthrow their fathers, to name a couple. The literary motifs implicitly foreshadow a lot of the film in an esoteric coming together of literature, film and mythology.
Close attention has been paid to the time period, the 1960s, and all stylistic decisions reflect the need to preserve that setting, almost as if it were in a time capsule. From the costumes and the hair styling to the locations in Greece and the classical 60s framing of the subjects on screen in cinematography, the minute detailing is spot on. It was an interesting choice to have Marcel Zyskind as the cinematographer because his usual craft is most apparent in the hand held Dogma 95 school, as opposed to the more classical framing of shots which is dominant in this film. However, Zyskind’s presence is a masterstroke – he not only manages to showcase his proficiency in a completely different style and perfectly gauge classical framing, his framing also adds to the build-up of the narrative.
The taut screenplay, period detailing and cinematography are complimented by a terrific background score by Alberto Iglesias. The score has a beautiful rhythm to it that rises and falls with the peaks and troughs of narrative throughout the film. This film is a good example how a great background score can really elevate the stature of the narrative, especially in a thriller. Following a rather conventional narrative, with the focus more on psychology rather than ‘twists and turns’ of the plot, all these other elements lift the film and make it more engaging than frankly, it should have been.
Viggo Mortenson delivers a standout performance as the older alcoholic American husband Chester MacFarland. He seems to be revelling in the ‘Freudian’ roles that are following him since his portrayal of Freud in A Dangerous Method. Oscar Isaac delivers another solid portrayal after Inside Llewyn Davis. Kirsten Dunst delivers a typically restrained character study, something which has invariably come to be associated with her.
More than 15 years in the making, with setbacks including the unfortunate departure of Anthony Minghella who worked on the first draft of the script,1 we are glad that Hossein Amini’s directorial debut is finally amongst us. Though conventional at times, Amini’s command over his screenplay and minute detailing lift the narrative, making the film into a commendable psychological introspection of human behaviour.
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