28 May 2014


Oscar Isaac's star is on the rise now that he's getting roles like Llewyn Davis, to say nothing of the recent announcement that he's joining JJ Abrams' Star Wars movie, (take a shot for obligatory off-hand mention of Star Wars) but that makes him all the more interesting as a foil to his co-stars, the more seldom-seen Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

Together, they do all the leg-work in The Two Faces of January, which mostly has the feel of an old-fashioned three-hander. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, it's the story that follows Rydal, an American tour guide in Athens, after he bumps into a couple, Chester and Colette MacFarland in 1962. Although he's a consummate conman, his scheming fizzles out when he becomes infatuated with Colette and feels obliged to help when the couple are suddenly compelled to leave the country under suspicious circumstances.

I didn't know much about this one going in, which is sometimes what happens when you release a low-key thriller in between Godzilla and X-Men. It's getting to where I'm just not telling you much about a film's plot by default, which is probably a better way to write anyway. Suffice to say, there's more going on and Mortensen's Chester is arguably more the protagonist than Isaac's Rydal. That's simply because if this is a paranoid suspense thriller, (and it is) then Chester is definitely the paranoid one.

The Highsmith connection will inevitably draw comparisons between this and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley and there are certainly some similarities in the setup and the sun-soaked setting. But as everything from the title down would suggest, there's some division of character between Isaac and Mortensen when it comes to the tropes of masculinity that Highsmith explored in her work. In a telling scene early on, Chester buys his wife a bracelet with two snakes facing each other (take a shot for inadvertent Conan reference) with Rydal taking advantage of the gulf in understanding by haggling between his mark and the vendor in two different languages.

The two-face thing is definitely played up throughout, whether it's in Rydal's early use of his experience in Greece to gain the upper hand over Chester and other English-speaking tourists, or in the very literal face-offs that the two leading men get into later on. At one point, someone is literally given a choice of two passport photographs of the same person, just to run that motif into the ground. Like the film's preoccupation with certain daddy issues, I'd say it was on the nose, but then there's nothing really close to your nose except the nose on another face, right in front of you.

While it won't leave anyone asking about the significance of the title, it's definitely worth watching for the performances. Isaac brings nuance to an unusual audience identification figure- we find out far more about Chester's past and lifestyle than his, and he doesn't overplay the relative mystery about his prepossessing tour guide. Mortensen continues to pick his roles well, this time smoking like a chimney through virtually every scene and generally being an uncouth and shambolic presence, who is unsettled in his predicament just as much as he constantly, helplessly unsettles it. Although somewhat caught between them, Dunst makes a beguiling leading lady and Colette's ambiguous affection towards Rydal powers the paranoia and the spiralling enmity between the two men.

The Two Faces of January tackles the duplicity and ambiguity of its characters without getting mired in the kind of convoluted nonsense in which a lesser thriller might wallow. It's an exceptionally well-cast three hander, with interpersonal chemistry sparking in every direction. Even Hossein Amini's directorial debut feels somewhat underpowered and on the nose, the assured pacing and the strength of those characters still give him a little wiggle room for indulgence. If we could have an old-fashioned thriller like this every six months or so, that wouldn't be bad at all.

The Two Faces of January is still showing at selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen 
The Two Faces of January, why not leave a comment below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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