In 1960’s Greece, a dapper middle-aged American chap named Chester (a groggy but dashing Viggo Mortensen) on holiday with his trophy bride Colette (an effortlessly alluring Kirsten Dunst) spot a charming but suspicious young fellow (a cool Oscar Isaac) eyeing them at various locales. Daringly, Collette confronts him while in line at a rest room and finds out he’s an American, too, and a freelance tour guide named Rydel. Much to her husband’s chagrin, she’s invited Rydel to show them around the markets. The audience already knows Rydel is a bit of a scam artist, pretending to haggle in Greek with the merchants for his clients and pocketing the difference in price or flim-flamming them during monetary exchanges. After a night on the town for dinner and drinks, Chester has Rydel all figured out, though he and his wife have been thoroughly charmed by the con man’s company. Later at their hotel, a private investigator comes searching for Chester and sets off a series of unfortunate events that leave the couple in deep trouble and turning to Rydel for help.
The Two Faces of January deals with the duplicity of human beings and the fragility of their relationships. It’s adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel (the author best known for creating the character of Tom Ripley) and is competently scripted and directed by first time helmer Hossein Amini (best known for his sparse and effective Drive screenplay). With its beautiful travelogue vistas and breezy charm, it echoes the highbrow classiness of a bygone era of filmmaking…suspenseful without being salacious, intriguing without a whiff of trashiness.
Though one wouldn’t classify it as a twisty thriller, an unpredictable event about 3/4ths of the way through changes the fate of our players in chilling ways, and the aftermath is handled deftly by the cast and Amini while Alberto Iglesias’ tense music score hits all the right notes without ever coming across as a rip off of Bernard Herrmann. It’s the composer’s best work since The Skin I Live In (Almodovar’s Hitchcock inspired sick and twisted fever dream).
As Chester, Viggo Mortensen stumbles around half-drunk, tanned and in snazzy suits, a cigarette often dangling from his lips as he grows more frustrated and paranoid, words and feelings growling underneath his musky exterior. He comes across as an old-fashioned movie-star, someone who would’ve been perfectly at home in a Jimmy Stewart-era Hitchcock film. As Rydel, Oscar Isaac (best known as Standard from Drive or the bearded folk singer from Inside Llewyn Davis) is almost unrecognizable, and he maneuvers effortlessly through the film as the troubled con artist who falls for Colette as a potential romantic partner and for Chester as a father-figure. Both men get just enough background for the audience to understand them while still remaining mysterious. As Colette, Kirsten Dunst has never been more tremblingly lovely, capturing the frustrating dichotomy of her jet-set live-style fueled by her husband’s crimes, and she does the best with the material handed her as sadly her character is given next to no back story (other than she misses New York) to explain how she ended up in this predicament.
While ultimately the plot may seem a bit thin and the characters not deeply drawn enough for great melodrama, the film has just enough of that je ne sais quoi to be fitfully entertaining. The Two Faces of January is a damn fine throwback thriller that should charm discerning audiences who prefer a classier breed of popcorn entertainment and are too often underserved by Hollywood.
I had the pleasure of seeing it in a Dublin theater while on holiday, and here’s hoping strong word of mouth helps it find that audience when it’s released stateside later this fall.
Written by David H. Schleicher