Quick Reviews: The Two Faces of January and Barton Fink

the two faces of january and barton fink

There is still nothing worth seeing playing at my local theater. So here are some more reviews of films I watched during my Netflix adventures.

Up Today: The Two Faces of January and Barton Fink

Quick Take: The Two Faces of January is stylish, restrained, and unfortunately lackluster directorial debut from Hossein Amini that, despite a few flashes of potential and some decent acting, never really manages to hit its stride. Barton Fink is a well written black comedy that manages to strike a balance between nuance and absurdity that and explores ‘the life of the mind’ in an intelligent, satirical, and perfectly cynical way. 

The Two Faces of January (2014)
Directed by Hossein Amini
Watched on Feb 15

I had heard the word ‘Hitchcockian’ being thrown around with this film on the internet before I watched it. As a Hitchcock fan (and as someone who recently fell in love with the beautifully unsettling Hitchcockian film that is Stoker), such comparison inevitably got my hopes up, which may be partially to blame for my disappointment in the film. While there is really no sense comparing the two, The Two Faces of January lacks the depth and the well-crafted suspense of Hitchcock’s best works.

In fact, the best thing about The Two Faces of January is Oscar Issac’s face (close second: Viggo Mortensen smoking cigarettes); which is to say that, as beautiful and talented as Issac is, and as much as I enjoy Mortensen, Amini’s thriller/character study is largely forgettable and is unfortunately mundane.

Amini’s screenplay (which is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith Novel) is at once flat and too obvious to really work. At times, The Two Faces of January seems determined to keep things as quiet and as subtle as possible; at others, it goes out of its way to make make certain aspects of the film (such as the similarities between Rydal’s father and MacFarland) so painfully apparent, that it renders them wholly uninteresting. The film’s overwrought deus ex machina ending is also a frustrating let down. While a great deal of The Two Faces of January seems determined to come off as elegant, subtle, stylish, and morally ambiguous, ham-fisted moments like its ending ultimately undermine and ruin what could have been a much more compelling and worthwhile film.

Still, Mortensen and Issac do bring a certain level of gravitas and magnetic presence to the film that help to keep it more-or-less watchable through it’s 97 minute running time. As the scammer/tour guide Rydal, Issac gives slick and magnetic performance that remains relatively strong despite the fact that the scenes between him and Dunst (who plays Colette, the wife of Mortensen’s character, Chester Macfarland) lack a certain genuine chemistry and contain virtually no sexual tension (though the plot leads one to believe that they were supposed to). That said, Mortensen gives what is surely the film’s strongest performance. As the wealthy con man McFarland, he runs the gamut from threatening and erratic to pathetic and inept quite beautifully. Several of the scenes between him and Issac are also quite good; the script and the final product simply do not live up to their abilities.

The Two Faces of January could have been an intriguing character study; the right material seems to be there somewhere beneath the surface, but it is grossly mishandled. While the film remains mostly OK regardless, it is simply too lackluster for my taste. Given the fact that Amini penned Drive (which I love) as well the fact that Mortensen and Issac are the incredible actors that they are, The Two Faces of January just isn’t good enough.

Barton Fink (1991)
Directed by Joel (and Ethan?) Coen
Watched on Feb 15

One of my many current film-watching goals is to finish the Coen Brothers’ filmography. There is a hopelessness and a darkness in their work that I respond well to, and their irreverent humor is certainly something that I am a fan of.

Anyway, before watching Barton Fink, my favorite Coen films were No Country for Old Men and Fargo. This is still the case. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Barton Fink (which I knew almost nothing about before watching it). The film is puzzling, unsettling, and a tad repulsive, but in a good (read: intelligent and purposeful) way. It’s a well-crafted film that has “Coen” written all over it. And while I’m not racing to watch it again (with all the sweat, vomit, melting wall paper glue, and Barton Fink, there really is something sort of icky about this film), something tells me that it will only improve with further viewings—that is has more to say than one is likely to realize the first time that they watch it.

Barton Fink is an original and inspired (and dark, and twisted, and somewhat frustrated) work that combines a rich network of visual symbolism with deliberate (and often grotesque) stylization. The film explores a number of complex topics including (but not limited to) fascism and the failure to recognize it, writer’s block, a certain disconnect between ‘artists’ and reality, the relationship between high art and low art, and the disconnect (and intersections) between art and moneymaking. The film pokes wholes in just about every topic and type of person that it explores and does not mind if you come away from it loathing just about every character it portrays. While this film does feature memorable characters (the most important of which are Barton Fink himself and his hotel neighbor Charlie Meadows), it is not about them; they are simply the vehicles and the mouthpieces with which it explores much larger ideas and themes. No one in the film is particularly likable (whatever that means), given the film’s stance on the topics it tackles, it would not make sense for them to be.

John Tuturro and John Goodman both give excellent performances in this film. As the extremely self-involved and often terribly impotent playwright-turned-Hollywood-studio-writer Barton Fink, Tuturro completely disappears into his role. As Barton’s neighbor at the hellish and incredibly creepy Hotel Earle, John Goodman gives a complex and hard-to-forget performance; as Charlie Meadows, he often manages to be pathetic, sympathetic, and strangely frightening all at once. The scenes that feature both Barton and Charlie are some of the most thematically important in the film; thanks to the skill of Tuturro and Goodman they are also some of the film’s strongest and most memorable.

Whether one enjoys Barton Fink or not, the films certainly leaves one with the impression that it is a deliberately crafted work or art that has more than enough to say. While I understand that certain aspects of the film may turn off some viewers, I find myself hard-pressed not to call myself a fan of it. As hellish, as unsettling, and as sweaty as certain aspects Barton Fink are, I can’t help but feel a certain attraction toward a film that demonstrates as much intelligence, personality, and attention to detail as Barton Fink. (Given the widespread critical acclaim that it received upon its release, I am clearly no alone in this).

Fun fact: I graduated from the same school as Ethan Coen (as have a shit ton of other people). Someone tell him and convince him to give me a job :{ (that’s supposed to be a little emoticon idk). 

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. If you are a regular follower of this blog, I’d also like to thank you for putting up with the occasional gap between posts. Additionally, despite the current string of reviews, I do intend to write more analytical/argumentative posts (I’ve said this before sorry). The problem is that I often wait until I am ‘inspired’ (gross, I know) to write them; so I may need to make an adjustment there.

And, as always, feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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