Film review: The two faces of January (12A, 96 min)

The two faces of January: Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst
The two faces of January: Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst
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Man’s true ugly natures

Like Agatha Christie before her, Patricia Highsmith repeatedly challenged the moral compass of her readers with disturbing psychological thrillers that nudged her characters to the brink of madness.

In her debut novel, Strangers On A Train, she conceived a seemingly perfect murder for every disgruntled husband, which Hitchcock brilliantly adapted for the big screen.

Almost 50 years later, Anthony Minghella tapped into the disturbing sexual undercurrents of her 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley for a hauntingly seductively jaunt through Italy that netted five Oscar nominations.

The Two Faces Of January was published almost a decade after Highsmith unleashed her iconic con artist, Tom Ripley, and once again, she indulges in obsession-fuelled skulduggery, albeit against a vivid backdrop of sun-baked 1960s Athens.

Hossein Amini’s slow-burning film version conceals its Machiavellian machinations behind an elegant facade of impeccable period costumes and picturesque cinematography.

Yet, while this assured directorial debut is sweeping in scope, the focus of Amini’s lean script is the characters’ strained relationships and 
notably the frayed bonds of trust between two men, who must rely on each other to escape a hairy predicament of their own making.

The film opens at the Acropolis, where American businessman Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) cut elegant figures on the steps of the citadel.

Greek-speaking guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who scams unsuspecting tourists out of hard-earned drachmas, is drawn to the glamorous couple and he gladly accepts their invitation to dinner.

At the end of the night, as he makes his way home, Rydal discovers Colette has mislaid a possession on the back seat of the taxi, so he asks the driver to make a detour to the MacFarlands’ exclusive hotel.

Unexpectedly, Rydal walks in on Chester moving the seemingly unconscious body of a man (David Warshofsky) into another room.

The businessman explains that he was protecting his wife.

Blinded by his infatuation with Colette, Rydal pledges his help and suggests a means to obtain fake passports and escape the country.

As the trio heads for the coast, the police give chase.

“We’re joined at the hip,” Chester assures Rydal. “I get caught, I take you down. You get caught, you turn me in.”

Shot on location in Greece and Turkey, The Two Faces Of January nods appreciatively to both Highsmith and Hitchcock, ratcheting up tension as the two men trade verbal blows in order to secure Colette’s divided affections.

Mortensen and Isaac relish these fractious exchanges, creating a twisted father-son dynamic with Oedipal yearnings for Dunst’s third wheel.

Her role feels slightly undernourished but she’s pivotal to the on-screen chicanery and the film’s centrepiece sequence in subterranean gloom.

Because it’s under the comforting cloak of darkness that men’s ugly, true natures are revealed.

Thriller/Romance/Action. Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan. Director: Hossein Amini.