The Two Faces of January (2014) Review

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Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, and directed by Hossein Amini (writer of films such as Drive, 47 Ronin & Snow White & The Huntsman), this crime thriller stood out to me primarily due to its setting, being mostly located in Greece, and the cast, especially Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), two actors that I have enjoyed on a few occasions, and follow the best I can. They, along with co-star Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman), create a classic, though also freshly different, thriller set in the midst of the beautiful Greek islands, among historical ruins and distinctive town centres.

Set in the early 1960’s, Chester (Mortensen) and Colette (Dunst) are a glamorous and rich-looking couple who are visiting Athens. They meet a man claiming to be a tour guide named Rydal (Isaac) who helps them see the sights while scamming them out of some money as he translates prices for them from market traders. Rydal is drawl to Colette, showing an obvious attraction to her, and is curious of Chester and his sure-footed and sophisticated nature. He joins them for dinner, and when a situation leads him to their hotel, he sees Chester carrying the unconscious body of a man to another hotel room. The unconscious man had previously revealed himself to Chester as a detective with clients who wanted money that Chester had extorted from them, and when he held a gun to Chester the two wrestled with the private detective hitting his head and dying. Helping Chester put the body into a hotel room, and helping them get out of Athens and into Crete while they make decisions on what to do next, Rydal begins to learn more about Chester, who had lied to him, claiming that the man in the hotel was merely “knocked-out” and not dead, as he actually was. With Colette and Rydal showing a liking for one another, the jealous nature of Chester begins to materialise, something that is helped along by his enjoyment of scotch whiskey. Attempting to escape his past and the things he has done, while paranoid and jealous of his wife and the new younger man who has come into his life, Chester’s world begins to fall apart, resulting in some tragic moments.

I didn’t know what to expect with this movie, but I figured at the very least I would be captivated by the performances of the cast, and I was. Dunst, Isaac and Mortensen all did a marvellous job of carrying the film, building a conflicting and volatile relationship as they travel together in order to escape their crimes. With each character given flaws and sympathy, I found myself pondering how I might feel in each situation, and how I may handle what the three characters were forced to deal with. Mortensen, distrustful, explosive and green-eyed, trying to remain calm and hold his marriage together, delivers a great performance, filled with depth and tact. Dunst brought about a performance of a woman trying to remain loyal while being pulled away from her vows by the antagonism and corruptions of her increasingly deceptive husband. Isaac, as Rydal, brings the small-time crook who gets pulled into a world much more serious that he had considered, and his attraction to Dunsts’ Colette causes him to be a protector, of sorts, while also trying to save himself from his decision to help Chester in his crimes. The three of them have a very good chemistry, making it easy to lose yourself in their story.

I have to also point out how much I liked the locations of the film. From café’s in Greek centres, to ancient ruins, to airports and highways, it’s a gorgeous looking movie, and freshens up what is a fairly simplistic and classical storyline. The idea of a couple running from the law is tweaked with the addition of an almost-stranger, of sorts, with Rydal, the tour guide. The calm of the sunshine and sandstone beauty regularly becomes darker in tone, with the drunken paranoia of Chester, or the tense sequences in which our three runaways are attempting to avoid being seen, or caught, by the police. I thought it was all very interesting, and shot wonderfully by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (A Mighty Heart). The design of the film worked really well, and with it being set in the early 60’s, it offered a different visual to the norm, and I think it looked very authentic.

There may be some who want more from the actual story here, because while I felt like the easy-going and uncluttered nature of the prose to be refreshing, I think some viewers may want more twists and turns, and more dangerous and heart-shaking sequences. This isn’t that sort of film. There are no car chases through the streets of Athens. There are no shoot-outs in the decrepit ruins. There isn’t a rooftop getaway scene involving explosions and a dozen deaths. It is a more understated and laid back thriller, using the story of our three leads and their abnormal relationship to tell its story, backed up by the impending possibility that they could be caught by the police, or found by other people who may be looking for Chester due to his previous and numerous wrongdoings. I think it is one of those occasions where if you’re looking for one type of thriller, resembling bank robbery and shootouts, then head to that part of the shelf, because this isn’t it. This, though, is an enchanting little film which feels much more realistic and human than your average crime film, and I enjoyed that aspect very much.

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