Originally published on This Is Film
“I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn.”
Like a good, fun, pure rom-com, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find an excellent thriller. No, I don’t mean a schlocky action fest where cars turn over, buildings explode and Harrison Ford wields a gun, but a clever caper that uses words and tension to…well, thrill.
Enter The Two Faces of January, which has a cool vintage aesthetic that recalls the awesome The Debt from back in 2011 (a film I adore). Except, unlike John Madden’s spy tale, January is a consistently excellent, evenly paced work.
New multi-hyphenate Hossein Amini is best known for the cool, muted script behind Drive, another 2011 film. While it racks up a larger word count than his previous work, the same sensibilities remain. Although Drive is incredibly violent, it still utilised the mind of the viewer to excite, adding to the action that was happening. This is ever-present in January, where no shooting or car chases take place, but instead tension-building moments of a cross country journey that has many close shaves. Amini once again relies heavily on the expressions actors can convey, carrying out entire conversations and set-ups through glances, injecting silence into moments of great tension, never being afraid to pause.
This stylish approach spills over into the direction, which has a distinctive, sleek aesthetic. The most interesting element, however, is the use of setting. Many of the locations are those that would commonly be shown in sweeping wide-angles, looking as though they are pulled straight from a postcard, destined for a tourism reel. While their beauty and significance is talked about by the characters, they are commonly shown as dusty, deserted, and not inviting, and, beyond the first act of the film, many scenes aren’t even set in iconic landmarks. By opting for backstreets, sleeping on benches and run down cafes and apartments over shiny, opulent rooms, Amini creates a cool, metallic, knife-edge vibe, to the extent that, even though much of the film is set in warm sun, one feels a biting chill, foreboding and unappealing.
Playing three characters that all (of course) have something to hide, performers Isaac, Mortensen and Dunst are all excellent. In terms of role, Dunst’s character of Colette is the classic damsel, given the least to work with, but elevates her performance past what could have been purely a pawn in her male costars actions. As the eerie Chester, Mortensen is cold and sinister, hinting at further backstories for the audience to consider. This is also evident in yet another great performance from Isaac, who continues being a jack-of-all-trades in terms of playing different ethnicities (Russian, Greek, Latin American…), but instead is given the reverse of Mortensen, playing the classic good guy with a dark side.
Overall, The Two Faces of January is an intelligent, brilliant thriller. It’s the kind of film I adore, where you’re left excited by what may happen next and refreshed by how sublimely simple it is compared to many films which grace wide release today. As Godard once said, “all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”.