The Two Faces of January (2014): Theseus or Oedipus or Somewhere In Between?

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“Take a look at that view. Spectacular, isn’t it?” Yes, Greece is spectacularly beautiful – the 1960s period details enhance the excitable Mediterranean sheen, undoubtedly. It’s just a shame that someone involved in the making of The Two Faces of January didn’t suggest paying as much attention to the rest of the film as has unquestionably been paid to the locations and the lens flares.

Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, an American running away from his reality by guiding tourists around Athens. Two tourists that stand out to Rydal above and beyond the throng of Kodak-wielders are Chester and Colette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), a rich-looking American couple who instead wield cigarettes. The critic David Thomson has correlated a decline in movie standards with a decline in on-screen smoking. If there’s one thing that you can say about this film it’s that it’s not afraid to place a smoking cigarette in the hand of every character for at least 75% of the film.

What the director, Hossein Amini, does most interestingly is turn the regular process of lighting up cigarettes into a battlefield of sexual tension and marital jealously. By now, Rydal and the attractive couple have developed a mutual interest in, and suspicion of, one another – a love triangle is a brewing. When Colette snubs her husband’s lighter for Rydal’s, she might as well have leaned across the taverna table and French kissed the tour-guide-cum-con-man for all the difference it would have made to Chester’s reaction.

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Rydal seems to make his money stealing from tourists before it becomes apparent that Chester got rich the same way, but on a much grander scale. He managed investments for people, conning them instead. Both are the kind of men who tell different lies to different people. Just in case you didn’t get the obvious parallels drawn between the pair, Rydal’s daddy problems are made explicit to clear things up definitively. His father died recently, he didn’t attend the funeral and now complains about him whenever he has the chance.

Think the paternal connotations of the conflicting relationship between Rydal and Chester couldn’t be painted more unequivocally? You’re wrong. As we’re in Athens, a bit of faux-Greek mythologizing is thrown in for good measure. Theseus gets a mention, as does the Minotaur. Theseus was the founder-king of Athens and the son of two fathers – he was also the one to eventually kill the Minotaur. Just to underline things once more, the director restages the slaying of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth with a few added twists.

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Characteristic emotions are not explored with any more refinement either. When Chester is jealous, he’s falling all over the place in a drunken rage. When Colette is pissed off, Kirsten Dunst does her best pissed-off-bourgeois-woman face. Every emotion is attached to a broad gesture that stands in for nuance. The musical score and close-ups of fidgeting hands suggest tension where there simply is none. Oscar Isaac does manage to bring a little more conflict and depth to his troubled trickster than the film has any right to demand.

Amini ultimately fails to do what films like Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) did so well: using mise en scene to craft a creeping dread that weighs heavy on the lungs, eventually making it impossible to breathe the air of the film comfortably. The two films are comparable; both use the device of dubious American characters hiding out in an alien European land. But where The American had beauty and an understanding that the frame can do the work when organised with joy and elan, The Two Faces of January has post-war, pre-devastation Greece looking pretty and characters (in the worst sense of the word) holding cigarettes.

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