Review: The Two Faces of January
PLOT: A married couple on the run meet up with a charming young con man and involve him in their dilemma in 1962 Greece.
REVIEW: Anyone who yearns for the good old days when thrillers were elegant, subtle and romantic will find themselves thoroughly pleased with THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, a sumptuous and massively enjoyable suspense yarn based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. As Highsmith also wrote the source material for THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, this film is likely to draw comparisons to that one, for it too features a slick cast engaged in a battle of wills and wits in sun-splashed Europe. This movie, however, is much more compact than RIPLEY, whisking along efficiently but unhurriedly; like a prolonged episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," it shows us in brief time what an awful combination greed and desire can be.
Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are Americans on a lengthy European holiday; clearly wealthy and happy, they're immediately spotted by Rydal (Oscar Isaac), also an American but with a knack for languages and charming foolish tourists out of their money. With a sincere facade and ease with conversation, Rydal is looking to move up in the world, from petty cons to a bigger score, and this couple appears to be a good start. After a casual introduction where the couple hires him as a tour guide, the trio quickly strike up a tenuous friendship, though Rydal quickly become less interested in the scam and more intrigued in Colette, who with darting glances seems to share his curiosity. Chester, no fool, quite immediately sees through Rydal, but doesn't worry about the younger man challenging his happy status.
After leaving Rydal, Chester and Colette's night is far from over. A debt collector (David Warshofsky) has tracked them down, and we now learn a little something about Chester: he's a scam artist himself, just on a much bigger scale. Having bilked dozens of people out of their money back home, Chester's shady past is now catching up with him. A violent confrontation with the intruder and a poorly-timed return on Rydal's part throws Chester and Rydal together in a criminal act. Desperate to flee the place, the couple now must count on Rydal to guide them through the country safely. Whether or not he can be trusted is a question hanging over Chester, while for his part, Rydal has to figure out how to make himself useful so as not to be deemed expendable by the increasingly unhinged older man. As Chester says to Rydal at one point, "We're joined at the hip," and he couldn't be more right.
Written and directed with flair by screenwriter Hossein Amini (DRIVE), THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY unfolds gracefully, as our three protagonists form an uneasy bond on the run in the beautiful rocky hills of Greece. The dynamics between them become more interesting the further along they go: Rydal has major daddy issues back home that seem to be playing out once again with the disapproving Chester, while Colette is coming face-to-face for the first time with the real man she married. Meanwhile, the audience is left to wonder if we can trust any of these characters, or if they're all deserving of a grim fate.
The cast is a match to the material in every way. Mortensen is far from heroic as Chester, a man whose classy veneer cracks easily when under pressure; Mortensen has never looked so frazzled, so uncool; it's a great performance. Oscar Isaac is proving himself one of the most magnetic screen presences working today with every role; his Rydal is calm but vulnerable, sneaky but sympathetic. He keeps us guessing until the very end; Hitchcock would have loved him. Dunst has the least flashy role, but it's a solid portrayal of a woman caught between two men and wishing it would all go away.
The fourth star of the movie is the amazing scenery, lusciously captured by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. The gorgeous beaches and mountains are an eyeful, and perfect backdrop for this intimate thriller. The further the trio goes, however, the darker and more ominous the locales become, and a final showdown in Istanbul is a perfect, film nour-ish place to wrap up this taut, tension-filled story.
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