Director: Hossein Amini
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, Yigit Ozsener, Daisy Bevan, Evgenia Dimitropoulou, Nikos Mavrakis
RunTime: 1 hr 37 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 11 September 2014
Synopsis: Adapted from the best-selling Patricia Highsmith novel… 1962. A glamorous American couple, the charismatic Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Coletter (Dunst), arrive in Athens by boat via the Corinthian Canal. While sightseeing at the Acropolis they encounter Rydal (Isaac), a young, Greek speaking American who is working as a tour guide, scamming tourists on the side. Drawn to Colette’s beauty and impressed by Chester’s wealth and sophistication, Rydal gladly accepts their invitation to dinner. However all is not as it seems with the MacFarlands and Chester’s affable exterior hides darker secrets…
Since making his debut with Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Jude’ for Michael Winterbottom, British-Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini has revealed a penchant for literary adaptations whether classics such as Henry James’ ‘The Wings of the Dove’ or contemporary fiction such as Elmore Leonard’s ‘Killshot’ and James Sallis’ ‘Drive’. But even so, Amini’s choice of a Patricia Highsmith novel for his directorial debut is somewhat surprising, especially since his choice of projects have never revealed his ambition to follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock.
Yes, though it may not bear Highsmith’s most infamous anti-hero Tom Ripley (which Hitchcock brought to life in ‘Strangers on a Train’), ‘The Two Faces of January’ has both the look and feel of a Hitchcockian thriller from its sumptuous production design to gorgeous widescreen cinematography. But more importantly, fans of the master of suspense will immediately recognise the familiar theme of dualities, one which similarly forms the backbone of Amini’s tale of duplicity and power plays.
In true Highsmith fashion, the story begins from an ambiguous encounter between two men. On one hand is Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), a seemingly successful investment banker who forms a debonair pair with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst); on the other is Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a Greek-speaking fellow American who acts as a tour guide and works as a petty conman. The threesome meet at the Acropolis where Rydal offers to take Chester and Colette on a private tour, confident that he can skim a little off the top from the sophisticated yet naïve couple.
Suffice to say that Rydal gets much more than what he has bargained for when he decides to pay a visit to the couple’s hotel room to return a bracelet Colette had left behind, that act of kindness motivated less by generosity than an adulterous attraction for Colette. If Chester had seemed like the hapless American just a while ago, his actions during these crucial few minutes that Rydal walks in on will convince you that things are not quite so simple. Any ordinary man might have walked away there and then, but not Rydal - equally motivated by money and by lust, he agrees to trail Chester and Colette as they hit the road to flee Athens while waiting for his friend to prepare fake passports for the pair.
Notwithstanding the occasional supporting character, this is essentially a three-hander built on the interplay between Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac. No single character here is wholly sympathetic or trustworthy; instead, we are constantly shuttled from perspective to perspective as Amini carefully plots the ever-shifting power relations between the three protagonists. But to be more accurate, this is a character study of Chester and Rydal, two individuals distinguished by class who are actually not quite so different from the other.
In that regard, Mortensen and Isaac are perfectly casted. While his ‘Lord of the Rings’ heroics may have made him a recognisable face, Mortensen is in fact more at home in such character-driven dramas as this, playing a complex human being of multiple self-constructed identities. His multi-faceted portrayal of Chester spans various attributes - from smarmy to insecurity to distrust to jealousy and even to rage - and we’d go as far to say that it is one of his most intriguing performances yet. Isaac is a wonderful complement, projecting both charisma and ease as he tries to stay ahead of his cunning and conniving alter ego. And between Mortensen and Isaac, Dunst holds her own as the morally ambiguous Colette, whose elusive nature keeps you guessing if she is victim or manipulator.
So even though there are no grand sequences to speak of, this is a film that thrives on the little moments - be it a moment of revelation or a moment of realisation - between its trio of characters driven by their own selfish motivations. It is a fine old-fashioned thriller that harkens to a Hitchcockian era of deceit and duplicity, whose title so named after the Roman god Janus of two faces alludes to. And in terms of a filmmaking debut for Amini, it is also assured and confident, one that deftly straddles the balance which he has been walking in his career between art and commercial filmmaking.
(As assured and confident a filmmaking debut as any, Hossein Amini’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel is a fine Hitchcockian thriller of intrigue, suspense and good acting)
Review by Gabriel Chong