Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Hossein Amini
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, David Warhofsky, Daisy Bevan-James, Sobol Kelly.
The Two Faces Of January is set in Greece in 1962, and draws its title from Janus, the Roman God of beginnings and ends and who is usually depicted with two faces. The central plot features an innocent man on the run from the police after becoming mixed up in murder and intrigue. Rydal (Oscar Isaac, from Inside Llewyn Davis, Balibo, Drive, etc) is a young expatriate American working as an unofficial tour guide in Athens, with a profitable side-line in conning tourists. Then he meets urbane and wealthy tourist American Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his pretty but demure wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), and befriends them. They seem like wealthy tourists, but Chester has a dark secret that catches up with him, resulting in a dead body in their hotel bathroom.
Chester is forced to flee Athens with Colette and Rydal in tow. He enlists Rydal’s help in trying to arrange false passports to leave the country. But as the three fugitives make their way across the country tensions mount, especially as Colette seems sexually attracted towards the younger and more vital Rydal. There is a growing atmosphere of jealousy and mistrust between the two men that becomes poisonous and deadly.
Adapted from a lesser known novel written by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers On A Train, The Talented Mr Ripley, etc), this is a slow burn suspenseful psychological thriller in the Hitchcock mold. Many elements of some of Hitchcock’s classic films permeate this suspenseful and taut thriller. There is even a blonde character who is treated badly by her husband to further enhance the Hitchcock tradition. Even the music score from Alberto Iglesias is evocative and reminiscent of the work of the late Bernard Herrmann, who scored so many of Hitchcock’s films.
Highsmith creates morally ambivalent characters who often have dark secrets to hide. Her novels never really judge her characters, despite the sometimes awful things they do.
Mortensen normally plays the strong heroic type, but here he delivers a more nuanced and restrained performance than usual as the amoral Chester, and he captures his insecurity and paranoia, and reveals a rare fragility. Isaac is charismatic and brings a brooding intensity to his performance as the hapless Rydal, who quickly finds himself out of his depth in dealing with the sociopathic Chester. And Dunst is good in a slightly underwritten role as the cliched femme fatale.
The Two Faces Of January marks the directorial debut of Iranian born screenwriter Hossein Amini (who wrote Drive, The Wings Of The Dove, etc), who has wanted to adapt Highsmith’s novel for the past fifteen years. He proves himself to be proficient in developing an air of suspense and slowly increasing atmosphere of mistrust, paranoia and menace. He even gives the material the look and feel of a 60s melodrama. He also highlights the unspoken tension between the three characters. There is some gorgeous scenery as the drama plays out amongst the ruins of the Parthenon and Knossos and the streets and markets of Istanbul, and the locations have been beautifully shot by Michael Winterbottom’s regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind.