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The Two Faces of January | reviews, news & interviews

The Two Faces of January

The Two Faces of January

Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac lock horns in an elegant old-school thriller

Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst

Discussing what appealed to him in Patricia Highsmith’s simmering thriller The Two Faces of January, first-time director Hossein Amini landed on the deliberate lack of character motivation: “She doesn’t really explain why people do things.” This very obfuscation drew attention at the time of the novel’s 1964 publication, when the reader at Highsmith’s publisher identified “a frightening sense of the neurotic” in her

approach to drawing characters.

A lack of motivation is far from ideal in the mind of most actors, and there is a sense that Two Faces’ script is at times working against its strong performers, but overall it’s a compellingly minimalistic psychodrama. Oscar Isaac shines in the most fully fleshed-out role: his Rydal is a slick American con artist type, working as a tour guide in Athens after skipping out on his father’s funeral across the pond. This unresolved paternal relationship haunts his every interaction with Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an impeccably dressed American holidaying with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst).

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of JanuaryWhen Chester’s shady Wall Street past abruptly catches up with him in a violent and far from neat confrontation, Rydal becomes an accomplice and helps him to evade the Greek authorities, inexorably drawn to this couple and their secrets. There’s an element of the con here too, with Rydal exploiting the language barrier to pocket more of Chester’s money – but as more is revealed it rapidy becomes clear that he's in well over his head.

While it’s a very different beast to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which made a point of reintroducing that absent motivation, the two films share a central conflict: the intoxicating glamour of expat life juxtaposed against human nature at its ugliest and basest. As Rydal leads Chester and Colette from Athens into hiding and the locales grow more and more remote, so the dynamics between our three leads grow more and more dangerous. Chester is petty and paranoid, rankled by Rydal’s infatuation with Colette, but Isaac makes it intriguingly plain that his real obsession is with Chester.

Dunst’s Colette is the most damningly underwritten character – a deliberate lack of motivation is one thing, but she’s such a passive cipher that the triangle feels fundamentally imbalanced. Chester as written is a similarly one-note sociopath, but Mortensen is given more scope to hint at hidden nuance, and his dynamic with Isaac is an utterly compelling blend of daddy issues and latent homoeroticism. 

Oscar Isaac and Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of JanuaryDrive screenwriter Amini acquits himself well in his feature debut, making ravishing and atmospheric use of the Grecian settings – one breathlessly effective climactic set piece takes as its backdrop the ragged ruins of Knossos in Crete.

The Two Faces of January is conventional as Highsmith goes, the plot playing out more or less precisely as you expect, and yet there is a genuinely surprising sting in the tail. After so much emphasis on the ugliness of humanity, the third act dovetails into a cathartic grace note that is emotionally rewarding if not redemptive. It’s an elegant, hypnotically glamorous, old-school thriller of the kind that has become a rarity, and solidifies Isaac as one of Hollywood’s most compelling new leading men.

Mortensen's dynamic with Isaac is an utterly compelling blend of daddy issues and latent homoeroticism


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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