Beautiful Greek locales and three strong performances anchor “The Two Faces of January”, a smart and measured adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel. Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst star in this steady-moving thriller that doesn’t depend on big twists or reveals. Instead it is straightforward and focused – a slick and stylish retro noir full of fedoras and cigarette smoke.
It’s 1962 in Athens, Greece. Rydal (Isaac) is a tour guide and small-time con man. While at the Acropolis of Athens he connects with an American couple Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Dunst). Rydal is instantly attracted to Chester’s wealth and Colette’s beauty. Colette takes a liking to Rydal but Chester doesn’t trust him at all. The three have a pleasant dinner together and then part ways.
Chester and Colette return to their posh hotel where they are confronted by a mysterious armed man. Turns out Chester owes money to the wrong people. A struggle follows and the stranger ends up dead. In a panic Chester scrambles to do something with the body. While doing so he runs into Rydal who is returning a bracelet Colette left in a cab. A desperate Chester pleads with Rydal to help him and Colette get out of the city. Rydal agrees and the three head to the Greek Islands where they try to lay low until they can get back to the States.
The tensions between the three characters skyrockets. There is an obvious sexual tension between Rydal and Colette. This leads to a growing animosity between Chester and Rydal. There is also Colette’s anger and frustration with Chester for getting them into the mess they’re in. Then you can sprinkle in Chester’s heavy drinking and growing paranoia along with the question of Rydal’s trustworthiness. Each one of these tensions are allowed to play out, sometimes in unexpected but satisfying ways.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini, probably best known for his work on “Drive”, makes his directorial debut and he certainly has an intriguing eye. The film is exquisitely shot and Amini doesn’t shy away from using the beauty of his setting. He also gives a keen attention to detail particularly in creating a nostalgic noir atmosphere. I swear, at times this film looked as if it were plucked right out of the the late 1940s or early 50s. It’s something Amini is clearly going for and for the most part he nails it.
The film is also helped by its exceptional cast. Oscar Isaac is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of cinema’s most reliable actors. Here he gives a character that is charismatic, charming, but also a mystery. Mortensen is tasked with the bigger and louder performance and he has no problems with it. He lays out the intricacy of his character sometimes with bravado but other times with quiet uncertainty. And Dunst was also very good. She is an actress who keeps getting better and better. Here she gives us a character who may be the only one worthy of our sympathy.
“The Two Faces of January” is an intelligent and efficient thriller that is very confident with its presentation and with the story it is telling. Hossein Amini gives an impressive directorial debut, but he also deserves credit for his well-conceived screenplay. And it doesn’t hurt to have talents like Isaac, Mortensen, and Dunst to help create your vision. I wouldn’t say “January” will be one of those essential time capsule movies, but it is a highly entertaining throwback thriller that more people need to see.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Cool man, I’ve taken note. Oscar Isaac really is everywhere right now isn’t he? So exciting. I’m really coming to like the guy ever since his Standard Gabriel.
Great reflection on a movie I’ve really read little about so far.
Thanks bro. I was pretty enamored with this film. Beautifully shot. Great performances. Dunst was a really nice surprise. Just a very well made film. And it really didn’t get much press, did it? Did it ever open at a theater near you? I don’t recall ever seeing it open in my area.
No, it must have had a quiet release, although humble Knoxville, TN is no huge market. We have missed several big productions in recent times. This one def didn’t open here, which is unfortunate.
Neither is Little Rock, Arkansas! But for some reason I wasn’t a bit surprised that it didn’t show up here. We are finally getting “2 Days 1 Night” this Friday. I’ve been dying to finally see it.
Ooh! Good call on 2 Days, 1 Night. I just scoped Fandango to see what the local weekend showings are here, and it looks like we will be getting it as well. I know what I’m doing before anything else. 🙂
I somehow have this feeling my other choice of watches, Jupiter Ascending, will not hit the mark as much. That thing has been getting slammed with poor reviews.
I gotta say IMO Jupiter Ascending has looked god awful from the start. I think Michael Keaton may love it because it could ensure that Eddie Redmayne doesn’t win the Oscar! 😉
Haha! No doubt! Well it will not be the most memorable thing the Wachowski’s have set out to do ever but I do enjoy me some gorgeous, high-flying space-related visuals. Look for the (likely) negative review soon! 😉
Seems to follow the trend of late of writers crafting their own stories as directors (like WHIPLASH) in independent film. Not letting the corporate studios follow formula-driven, preview-tested outcomes. Another of those I’m hoping to catch up to. Thanks for the heads up, Keith.
Absolutely man. You hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what this movie is. Funny thing is it looks just as good as any big corporate studio production. It’s beautifully shot. And can you really go wrong with Mortensen and Isaac? What are your thoughts on Dunst. She is really beginning to grow on me.
The cast is great here as you never fully know who is going to get the best of the other. Truly fun stuff. Good review Keith.
Thanks bro. And you never know who to trust, right? I loved that little mystery.
Spot on, bro. Ever do a review that seems to get missed by people or it gets less attention that it normally would get? I found this with this film. I reviewed a few months ago, hoping to encourage more people to see it but I don’t think a lot of people listened. Anyway, glad to hear you enjoyed it. I thought it was superb and I still have it among my top Ten of 2014.
Wow that’s a shame. I don’t think this film got much press at all. Did it get a very big theater release over there? I don’t recall it ever hitting theaters in my area. People just seemed to ignore it.
And I know exactly what you mean about posts getting less traffic. I have had several that I hoped would introduce a good movie to more people. That doesn’t always work unfortunately.
It didn’t get a big release here at all. It slipped right under the radar but I had always had my eye on it. Fabulous film.
I remember reading the review and I listened! I’ll be checking it when I can get hold of it, even more determined to give it a shot now I’ve read Keith’s review. Sounds good and wish I could see more of Mortensen. He’s picking and choosing all right.
Anxious to hear your thoughts on it Stu. And that is so true about Mortensen. He is definitely picking over his offers very carefully. Such a good actor. I think you’ll really like him here.
Indeed you did, my man. I remember you reading. Well, now that I’ve said it and (the always reliable) Keith’s said it, there’s no time to waste. I was disappointed in how it all finally unravelled but up until then it was a great flick.
I remember your high praise for this film Mark, and it’s on my Netflix queue. Another vote from Keith so I’m even more intrigued to see this! Been a while since I saw Viggo in anything and I’ve come to be a big fan of Oscar Isaac, too!
I knew you had my back on this one, Ruth. 🙂
I’m very happy to hear that Keith loved it too. Hopefully more will seek it out. I mean, how can you go against Keith and myself? We’re juggernauts in our tastes! 😉
LOL. We pretty much set the standard of taste when it comes to movies, right Mark?
LOL! Right on brother! We know the score! And the blogosphere knows it! 😉
Isaac is everywhere, isn’t he. Viggo has been just the opposite. Really miss seeing him in more stuff. I guess he’s being very selective.
I’m glad Isaac is everywhere, he’s so talented! I first saw him as the petulant Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and I thought he was of British/Italian descent but turns out he’s Guatemalan. Yeah I think Viggo is very selective but he’s got so much going on in his life other than acting.
Btw, don’t forget it’s Five for the Fifth time 😉
Definitely going to chime in to this month’s “Five”. Some really cool topics/questions!
I skipped this when it was in the theatre but I have subsequently become a bit obsessed with Isaac so I think I need to rent it.
Abbi he is really good here (once again). I know I sound like a broken record but I love that he is getting attention and bigger, meatier roles. I’ve always liked him as an actor. And the film – you definitely need to give it a look.
You know, I skipped this over on Redbox because it felt like one of those ‘straight to video’ type releases, but now I wish I had rented it.
Well, there’s always this weekend!
You gotta see it man. This is a smart and cool thriller that needs an audience. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
This sounds like something I’d really like; I’ll add it to my list. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Absolutely worth checking out! It’s a movie that seemed to get pushed aside and forgotten. I really hope more people will give it a look!
Beautiful looking film and costumes.
I really enjoyed this, its a good thriller featuring an excellent cast. With Oscar Isaac being the standout.
Thanks. Great to hear from someone else who gave it a shot. Not sure about there, but here it got practically no theatrical release no one talked about it. Was it the same over there?
Need to see this. Another that slipped by me. My movie radar isn’t what it used to be lol. Nice review as always, Keith.
Thanks man. Oscar Isaac is everywhere isn’t he. He’s so good here and he’s just a great actor. I think his time has finally come.
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