Movie Review: The Two Faces of January

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An American couple travelling in Greece end up on the run with a con man after a private investigator is murdered.

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Hossein Amini, 2014

In the ruins of Athens, American businessman Chester (Viggo Mortensen) is on vacation with his young, beautiful wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). They cross paths with Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young American posing as a tour guide and, unbeknownst to them, fleecing young female tourists for money. Colette takes a liking to Rydal, who is drawn to the couple and agrees to show them around the city. However, it isn’t long before Chester’s past catches up with them. Soon Chester and Colette must go on the run, aided by Rydal’s criminal contacts – but as he becomes more involved in the couple’s life, Rydal begins to discover that he might be in over his head.

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The Two Faces of January is a gorgeously shot thriller that’s clearly inspired by Hitchcock thrillers. It doesn’t quite match the cleverness of a good Hitchcock film, but it’s atmospheric and the trio of main actors are compelling, with chemistry to spare. This film is Hossein Amini’s only directing credit (apart from one short film), but he has a very assured hand here, particularly in building tension. He has the good sense to train the camera on his actors’ faces and trust them to make the characters work. The plot is slight, as is the dialogue; there’s more tension in what the characters aren’t saying than what they are. The soundtrack is also sparse, but this doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage – I couldn’t help feeling as though some scoring could serve to enhance the film’s atmosphere. The sumptuous, sun-soaked visuals of lovely locations are great, but they can’t do the work all on their own. There’s a definite sense of treading water between the big plot twists and set pieces, and while it’s enjoyable to spend time with these actors playing these characters, the pace is a slow one.

All three of the main actors are terrific. The film plays to their individual strengths. Viggo Mortensen brings an undercurrent of simmering tension to Chester that exists even at his most charming moments, exploding in violent outbursts when it bubbles to the surface. There’s a world weariness to Kirsten Dunst’s performance that suits her somewhat naive character – she sits at the intersection of melancholy and perky. Oscar Isaac brings charm and a surprising innocence to his petty con man, struggling to stay in control as everything spins wildly out of it. They all work well together, too, their relationships complex. As the film progresses and becomes darker and more violent, the cracks in the characters begin to show, rounding out what start out as tropes and turning them into three-dimensional characters. The film stops short of making its flawed characters simple villains, which works to its credit. There’s a little extraneous exposition in the beginning of the film, particularly in relation to Rydal, that feels forced and unnatural. Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable little throwback film that nicely captures the elements of the thrillers of the 50s.

The Two Faces of January on IMDb

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