The Two Faces of January (2014)

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A glorious sun drenched tale of swindling, who to trust and relationship dilemmas that come with the territory of introducing a handsome hard to read man into your troubles. Hossein Amini manages to make Greece look both gorgeous and nerve wracking in his first film as director.

This story concerns a married couple, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) holidaying in Athens where they meet an outwardly helpful yet possibly scheming tour guide called Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who becomes even more of a help when he aides Chester and Colette in fleeing the scene of a crime. It’s not long before Chester starts envying Rydal and the threat of cops on their tail bring things to a dramatic end.

The plot based on a novel of the same name works really well in setting itself up as a beautiful yet unnerving tale of keeping one step ahead of the police and each other. The basis of who to trust is a clear theme a Rydal is from the beginning laid out as a con man but it’s not long before statuses switch back and forth on who you identify with. As a film goer and audience member I to’d and fro’d between the likeability of the male leads and which one I trusted but in the end the film gives you a clear answer to who is the better man. It’s an old school thriller and I really liked that style throughout, there are some nice ideas in the story that hark back to the Hitchcockian vibe of filmmaking and the simplicity of swindling and an outside figure helping is all it needs to bring in that suspenseful note.

There are some fabulous shots that make Greece shine, from the dwellings of a ruin to the shot of Mortensen standing atop a stony platform. Even the short inclusion of seeing the ripple of the ocean caused by the boat helps create that atmosphere needed, it mirrors the wavy up and down nature of this plot and the unsettling dread of what could always be around the corner. The story does take them around Greece and Turkey and in these locations there’s plenty of shadowy classic thriller shots that are reminiscent of the shots used in brilliant old fashioned film noir cinematography.

Mortensen plays the wealthy yet troubled husband to damning effect and you visibly see his struggle as drink and stress takes a hold over him. More than that it’s the shred of jealousy running into his mind that takes the story over the edge for him as a character. Dunst shines as much as the Greek sun but doesn’t do that much of anything apart from play the likeable, nice caught up wife. She’s neither terrible or brilliant as the film focuses more on the two men. Isaac is the standout for me, he seizes the camera and plays the tour guide with that outer shell of hard lined untrustworthy swindler with ease. You never know where you stand with him or Mortensen but he plays that possible outside villain to the piece really well. The film does only really need these three actors and aside from the police and a private detective the plot is aimed squarely at how this trio of egos and relationships react when together.

The tension is steady through the most part of the film though I perhaps would have liked the suspense to build to more of a crescendo or a thriller like twist to really set the movie ablaze. It is good with some tense moments in the moody depths of a ruin, a police monitored queue and the airport but the turnaround nearing the end is predictable and there isn’t a really a twist. I don’t know how the book reads and whether it’s intentional to not have a twist in the film but this is a movie where one would have been appreciated.

The only main critique I have of this film is that it did feel a little slow on the whole. It felt like a couple of times that scenes dripping with the prospect of something tense and/or suspenseful came to nothing bringing the pace of the film back down to its gentle stroll again. It’s also a little bit too filled with melodrama that nearly threatens to override the tension and beauty of the film by the end.

Still an interesting slow burning debut film from Amini that takes time to behold the glamour and grit of Greece with a good enough grasp on the thriller angle that feels rich and engaging to watch unfold.

7/10

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