What do you get when you set a film in a series of intoxicating foreign locales with a trio of leading characters who do nothing to grab your attention and very little to make you sympathize with any of them? You get The Two Faces of January, and the result is a 90-minute film that is poorly executed, has zero tension, and shockingly underwhelming acting considering who is in the cast.
Set in Athens in 1962, January begins with Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) traipsing about on an idyllic vacation, enjoying the Parthenon, sipping drinks at an outdoor café, and buying gorgeous jewelry from street vendors. They are drunk on luxury and are living the life. When they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American expat making a living conning American tourists, the con man agrees to help show the MacFarlands around. He is instantly drawn to Colette and though his interest in “helping” these two is obvious to Chester, he lets Rydal tag along.
When Chester accidentally kills a stooge who was sent from America on behalf of some angry investors who fell prey to his Ponzi scheme-like dealings, he convinces Rydal the man is just drunk and asks for help getting both he and Colette out of their hotel. Only afterward does Rydal learn through the news that the man has died, and by then he is too wrapped up with the MacFarlands’ precarious situation to be able to get out.
The primary downfall of this film is that you simply do not care about any of these characters despite their predicament. As their situation becomes more dire, they become increasingly desperate and this desperation leads them to act in unsavory ways — Chester drunkenly badgering and berating Rydal; Colette standing by Chester despite his increasingly poor treatment of her; Rydal trying to win over Colette regardless of her marital situation. Yet despite all this, you feel absolutely nothing for them. When Chester says “I’m sorry” to Colette in one scene, the phrase is so stale, so wooden, so rote that it means nothing, and yet somehow there is no tragedy in any of this. Mortensen sleepwalks through most of the movie, as though bored by the very material he is supposed to be engaged in, while Dunst is largely relegated to also-ran, damsel-in-distress mode when she’s not going into fits of histrionics when something goes wrong. Even Isaac, who gave a fantastic turn in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, cannot conjure up much in the way of emotion despite being the most potentially interesting character of the bunch, which is another problem all its own.
The Two Faces of January is based on the 1964 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, and one of the subplots involves Rydal viewing Chester as a sort of surrogate father. This has the chance to be a strong subplot, but it falls completely flat.
Unfortunately, the only part of this film that warrants any real applause is, ironically, the least important: the scenery. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and first-time director Hossein Amini sets the story in some picturesque locations, and the hot, oppressive weather seems to bleed out of the screen and onto you as the film goes on. But the direction regarding the actual story suffers from a pace that is too lazy for its own good, especially considering how short the film is. There are moments when this experience is comparable to watching the misguided George Clooney effort The American, where the scenery is made to be the star of the show while the movie doesn’t really go anywhere. At least with that film, Clooney’s assassin was playing a waiting game and so the incredibly slow pacing made sense from both a technical and plot perspective; here, it just seems like this trio is wandering from one picturesque spot or tourist site to the next, waiting for something to happen.
The Two Faces of January proves that image isn’t everything. You can have a beautiful setting and beautiful people involved in a film, but if the characters don’t move you in any significant way, and if your background is more interesting than anything else happening on screen, then your film is going to be dead inside. Just like this one.