The Two Faces of January (2014) – Review

Directed by Hossein Amini
Written by Hossein Amini from Patricia Highsmith
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac.
A thriller centered on a con artist, his wife, and a stranger who flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective.

Imbibing the feel and tone of Hitchcockian fear and paranoia these days is as tricky as it ever was to pull off, but first time director and writer of Drive, 47 Ronin and others, Iranian born Hossein Amini has an admirable stab at just that with The Two Faces of January, as he also adapts a screenplay of  Patricia Highsmith’s novel.
The story concerns itself with the tale of the MacFarlands, Chester (Mortensen) and Colette (Dunst) and their seemingly fortunate encounter with a tour guide, Rydal (Isaac), whilst on a sightseeing trip to Athens. It is whilst on this trip that Chester’s world begins to unravel as his business dealings appear to have turned somewhat sour. As such, he finds himself the unwitting perpetrator of an ugly crime that he is forced to carry out at just the wrong time.
Witnessing the crime without understanding the brevity of its extent and keen to profit from it, Rydal agrees to aid the escape of the couple to Crete where they are to lay low until new passports are provided, arranged by one of Rydal’s contacts. At the same time, Rydal’s trials in Colette’s company mean he is slowly falling in love with her, a fact that Chester suspects, although has no proof of. Under normal circumstances, Chester would no doubt have dispensed with Rydal’s services, but it appears he is more good than harm, for the moment at least.
What follows is an intriguing thriller with the three main characters given enough back-story and development arcs to be continually believable and interesting for the viewer. At a little over ninety minutes, Amini seems to cram a good deal of both exposition into the script and an artistic flair in regard to the visuals, which are authentic and deliver the sometimes claustrophobic feel to the plight of the characters. Murder, it seems, is a dusty, hot and sweaty affair that is as relentless as the dirty plots the become the focus of the story by its final third.
Globe-trotting in the early sixties was not quite a simple affair but the film never fails to convince us of its place in time, both in visual style and script and the visits to Athens, Crete and Istanbul are all welcome vistas to carry out the unpleasant aftershocks of a murder, laced with layers of deceit.

The performances are all very impressive, with Mortensen probably the standout amongst these three admittedly great professionals featured as he struggles to come to terms with his own actions, becoming more transparent as time goes on, which is almost the polar opposite of Dunst and Isaac’s characters that at first seem innocent enough, slowly becoming more complicit by their deeds.

In all, a thriller worth mulling over, that can be appreciated for not only its style and pace, but its ingenious scripting and admirable performances. An entertaining project overall, though it provides few surprises or a twisty payoff that we might hopefully expect.

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