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