A few years ago, there was this little movie called Drive. It was heralded as one of the year’s best at the time, but I’ve noticed a backlash starting to settle in. The movie still has its followers, but quite a few of my friends and correspondents have called it boring, pointless, gratuitously violent, etc. These were many of the same complaints that I leveled against Only God Forgives, Refn’s subsequent film, which is another very divisive piece of cinema.

Now, I was one of those who loved Drive upon its initial release, and I still hold it in high regard. Yet I absolutely despised Only God Forgives and I’m still picking shrapnel out of my ass for my review of it. In the many, many discussions that followed, one of my correspondents suggested that Refn didn’t write Drive but did write Forgives, and maybe that made the difference.

Drive, by the way, was written by Hossein Amini, who adapted the script from a James Sallis novel. Amini later went on to write Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but let’s not hold those duds against him; both of those projects were so thoroughly bungled that no screenwriter could have saved them.

So here’s The Two Faces of January, in which Amini makes his directing debut with a screenplay that he wrote. Additionally, the film was adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose works also gave rise to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. For extra measure, Amini would be working with a cast of such esteemed talents as Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Drive alumnus Oscar Isaac. Basically, Amini set up the ultimate test to prove whether he was truly the real deal. With such an impressive pedigree, and with no one else to blame if the writing or direction fell flat, Amini would have looked like a true dunce if this movie came apart.

But it didn’t. Sure, it’s deeply flawed, but it’s overall a very good film.

Our story takes place all over Europe, but most of the action is set in Greece. There, we meet Isaac’s character, a young man known only as “Rydal.” We quickly learn that instead of going back home to America to bury his dead father, Rydal has been acting as a tour guide to con gullible vacationers out of their money. He has two major scams: He either lies about the currency exchange rate, taking American dollars in return for fewer drachmas than they’re worth; or he haggles with street vendors in Greek, translates the price into a higher figure in English for the tourist, then works with the vendor to pocket the difference. The guy’s quite clever, really. But not clever enough.

Rydal eventually crosses paths with Chester and Colette MacFarland, respectively played by Mortensen and Dunst. He’s attracted to them for some sudden reason, and agrees to help the married American couple find their way through Greece. Unfortunately, it turns out that Chester double-crossed the wrong people back in the States. There’s an assault, someone turns up dead, and Rydal has the bad luck to get caught up in all of it. Rydal is then hired to procure new passports for the MacFarlands, so the three of them go on the run together.

First of all, Rydal needs the MacFarlands because he doesn’t get paid if anything happens to them, and the MacFarlands need Rydal because he can get them passports. Secondly, the MacFarlands have all the money, with thousands of dollars in cash tucked away, but Rydal is the only one who knows how to get around Greece and how to speak the language (in fact, he speaks several different languages). Thirdly, Rydal is involved enough that he can be charged as an accomplice, but he also knows enough to bring the MacFarlands down with him if he’s arrested.

Sound like an unstable partnership? Man, I’m just getting started.

It must be emphatically stressed that all three of these characters are inherently dishonest. Rydal is a con artist, after all, and there are precious few reliable details about where he came from and what he plans to do with the money he steals. As for Chester, he (allegedly) swindled millions of dollars from some very wealthy people. Moreover, we saw him kill a man early on and he’s played by Viggo freaking Mortensen. We know that the guy can take care of himself, no matter how scared and defenseless he may act, so what else could he be hiding?

Then we have Colette, who proves to be a major wedge between the group. See, Chester is naturally quite paranoid, due to all the people out to kill or arrest him, and that paranoia is very quickly turned toward his partners as well. The guy gets insanely jealous over the prospect that Colette and Rydal may be falling for each other, and of course it’s anyone’s guess whether those suspicions are justified. We also see that Chester is a very mean drunk, which certainly doesn’t help matters. As for Colette herself, what the hell is she even doing in this May/December marriage anyway? Are they really married at all? Does she have some kind of secret or involvement in Chester’s legal trouble?

All three of these characters have a tremendous amount of secrets and their agendas are never entirely certain. This is the movie’s greatest strength as well as its greatest drawback. On the one hand, these characters are so deeply enigmatic and brilliantly performed that their story makes for some wonderfully compelling suspense. On the other hand, most of these questions lack any definitive answer and plenty of secrets go untapped.

I understand that the characters’ enigmatic nature is a huge part of what makes this film work. I also understand that as a suspense thriller, some false trails and red herrings come with the package deal. Even so, it feels like a lot of potentially great character drama was left on the table when so many intriguing setups are given so few satisfactory payoffs. It feels cheap to constantly allude to the characters’ backstories and ask how they got to where they currently are, and then fail to answer those questions with anything more than half-truths or outright lies. Then again, as I’ve stated before, the characters are so completely untrustworthy that maybe they were giving honest answers all along and I had no reason to believe them.

This is a huge part of why the movie didn’t quite stick the landing for me. The resolution seemed very strained, in that it didn’t tonally match with the rest of the film. This plot is comprised of various mysteries and messes, and it felt cheap for so many complicated storylines to be resolved in such a rushed manner. This movie did not deserve to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, but that’s exactly what the filmmakers seemed determined to do.

Based on the Wikipedia synopsis for the book (because of course I haven’t read it, sadly), it appears that a fair bit of information about the characters had been excised from the screenplay. Also, the plot — particularly the ending — is different from the book in some key ways. So I’d assume that some key points got lost in the process of adaptation and the book is far better than the movie. Needless to say, these are hardly unusual problems.

It bears remembering that The Two Faces of January is Hossein Amini’s first time at the helm, and it’s a damn solid directorial debut. Aside from a few shaky-cam chase sequences, the whole movie looks gorgeous and takes full advantage of the local European beauty. The movie is even more remarkable for how it maintains some wonderful tension throughout, and the powerhouse trio of leads did a lot to help that.

The ending stumbles a bit, and it’s frustrating that so many mysteries aren’t given worthy resolutions, but that isn’t enough to take away from 90 minutes of compelling suspense. Definitely worth a look.

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