Without even one fast-paced car chase or explosive special effects scene, The Two Faces of January fills the screen with exquisite suspense. Set mostly in Athens and Crete during the 1960s, this elegant thriller draws us into the world of two con men and the woman they both desire. Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst excel in the lead roles, and director/writer Hossein Amini deserves recognition for his patient helming and adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel -- as do Alberto Iglesias and Marcel Zyskind for the way their music and cinematography add to the film’s intriguing atmosphere and noirish tone.
Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his wife Collette (Dunst), a very attractive and wealthy American couple, seem to be enjoying their visit to Greece. While sight-seeing in Athens, they meet tour guide Rydal (Isaac) at the Parthenon and invite him to join them for dinner. Rydal, also an American, delights them with his ability to speak Greek as well as his knowledge about Greece. Still, we can’t help noticing a hint of tension between Chester and Rydal, who is much younger than Chester. Is it because Chester knows Rydal has been scamming tourists -- or because Rydal thinks Chester looks like his recently deceased father -- or because Collette pays so much attention to Rydal -- or maybe for all three reasons? Not to worry, for the MacFarland’s will be leaving the next day.
Unfortunately, later that night Rydal goes to the posh hotel where the MacFarlands are staying to return an item of Collette’s that she left behind. What Rydal sees Chester doing in the hotel hallway ties these three people together in a dangerous situation -- one involving suspicion of murder -- and this is just the beginning of the film!
The Two Faces of January serves as an excellent example of how a well-made movie with outstanding performances can make us care about the characters despite their faults. Chester, a man who made his fortune by swindling others, evokes our sympathy because of Mortensen’s nuanced portrayal of a jealous husband afraid of losing his younger -- and very beautiful -- wife. Rydal also moves us as a result of Isaac’s ability to project the younger man’s confused feelings about Chester as well as his longing for Collette. Collette could have been just eye-candy, but Dunst gives her spunk and depth, so we forgive her too-quick temper and insensitivity to Chester.
There are no heroes here -- but who is the villain? Is there a good con man and a bad con man? The Two Faces of January makes you think about those questions, for sure.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “PG-13” for some violence, language and smoking.)
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