The Two Faces of January movie review: without a Hitch

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The Two Faces of January yellow light

There’s delicious movie-movie elegance in the exotic locales and the period dress, but not much tension to be found in the murderous misadventures on offer.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Screenwriter Hossein Amini (47 Ronin) set himself a high bar for his directorial debut, and he doesn’t quite make it over the top. Choosing to adapt a novel by Patricia Highsmith and casting a cool Hitchcockian blonde in the female lead is practically daring us to make the inevitable comparison… and then completely eschewing any sort of distinctive style for the somewhat dated story he’s telling leads to an inevitable conclusion: If Hitch had made this film in the early 60s — it’s set in 1962; the novel dates from 1964 — it would probably have been a cracker of a psychological thriller. But Amini is unable to create much tension out of his trio of morally compromised protagonists and the murderous misadventures that befall them. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen: On the Road) and his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), are on vacation in Athens when they fall in with an American ex-pat con artist, Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac: In Secret), who turns out to be very useful when the MacFarlands have to exit Athens in a hurry when some trouble that has followed them from New York shows up at their hotel. There are some old-fashioned cinematic pleasures to be found here: a pulled gun in a fancy hotel room feels like an authentic threat in a way that so many modern movies fail at thanks to the ubiquity of guns onscreen (it’s usually far more surprising when guns aren’t drawn). And there’s delicious movie-movie elegance in the exotic locales and the period dress, via which Amini does manage to evoke a retro sense of cinema as a substitute for travel in the era before cheap airline flights and 24-hour cable travel documentaries. But as a story, it’s all weirdly unsatisfying, despite the very good efforts of the always appealing cast. That old-fashionedness becomes something akin to naivete: one big revelation about something in the past is played as a thing that’s meant to surprise us, but it seemed like a given from the beginning. And when it comes to its rather pat ending, I thought, Wait? That’s it? I realized then that the story had never gotten around to being about anything. If it’s all nothing more than the to-ing and fro-ing, the shouting and the recriminations, that sit on the shallow surface… well, there’s simply not enough there there.

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Fri, May 16, 2014 4:33pm

The trailer made it look like a very old story, and now that I see when the book was published I shouldn’t be surprised. But one of the filmmaker’s jobs is to make old stories appear new.