The Two Faces of January

A Greek Tragedy?

Directed by Hossein Amini




Within the genre pool, there seems to be a shortage of a certain type of film. Between the sequels, reboots and superheroes, there is a lack of grown up thrillers, films that offer us the cat and mouse quality that is so deviously entertaining. There have been some, such as the superior Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), however they have been few and far between compared to previous decades, such as the 1990s (see also the courtroom drama subgenre).

So it is with a breath of fresh/old fashioned air to welcome The Two Faces of January, a film that harks back to the classic Hitchcockian era. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the film, set in 1962, begins with Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kristen Dunst) enjoying the sights of Athens, an affluent American couple who are amidst a European trotting holiday.  Whilst sightseeing, they cross paths with tour guide/scam artist Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who, after showing them around the city, joins them for dinner, attracted both the Chester’s wealth and Colette’s beauty. However not all is what it appears with the couple when a private detective tracks them down at their hotel and Chester has to protect the dark secrets he is hiding and to which Rydal unwittingly becomes an accomplice. The trio then begin a journey to flee Greece, bound together by circumstance yet becoming fractured by jealously and paranoia.


Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Rydal (Oscar Isaac) weigh up their options

The Two Faces of January is an unashamedly classic thriller, displaying all the hallmarks of the bygone era talkies, exotic locations, impossibly glamorous, shady duplicitous men and not an explosion or CGI moment in sight. The film oozes a sophisticated disposition rarely spied on the big screen in recent years; it is also a film that allows depth of character, the ménage et trois created through their predicament creates an abundance of simmering tension.  As Chester, Viggo Mortensen perfectly portrays a man whose mask of control has quickly began to unravel and whose suspicions begin to destroy him. Oscar Isaac continues to impress, he is an actor that appears completely different each time you see him, and he is an intriguing screen presence and crucially one that you would believe, the essence for any conman. It is a shame then that Dunst is given short shrift, for whilst she makes the most of her character Colette, initially the archetype of the trophy wife, who reveals a sense of ambiguity, she is not given enough to do and it feels like her femme fatale antics may be appearing off-screen. And whilst the film should be applauded for keeping to its restrained elegancy, it does lack a killer punch, which sadly many audiences will be expecting; it almost feels at times that the dramatic score is hinting at something that never quite arrives onscreen. The film therefore fails to amaze but it does respect its audience and provides a handsomely crafted, beautifully acted story that simmers with a wonderful vintage touch.