The Two Faces Of January (2014) – Review

With his first directing gig (besides one short film), writer/director Hossein Amini has crafted himself a really stand-out piece of work.  Amini you may or may not know as the guy who wrote Drive, Nicholas Windin Refn’s sublime Ryan Gosling-starring thriller – a CV embellishment most would kill for.  The Two Faces Of January – adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith – only further a cements his strength in the genre, both in writing and now calling the shots.  A strong parallel exists between the two films in regards to pacing, plot development and character dynamics, in as much as there are three main players (one of them Oscar Isaac) riffing off each other, with the two men – Viggo Mortensen’s investment con artist and Isaac’s ambiguous stranger – gradually forming an untrust between one another, with Kirsten Dunst serving as the wife who plays catalyst to their squabbling.

The excellent performances elevate what could have been a fairly nuts-and-bolts, cat-and-mouse thriller.  The broiling chemistry between the three leads is, of course, in part due to good writing, but the real secret ingredient is how well Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac play off each other.  When Mortensen and Isaac on-screen together, particularly as their already fragile relationship grows more and more fractured, we’re treated to some wonderfully compelling exchanges and interplay.  I was reminded in parts of the scintillating chemistry between Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in The Assassination Of Jesse James, a screen relationship I would cite as one of the best ever committed to film.  Mortensen and Isaac have a similar connection in the way they move together and share untrustworthy glances, always hiding, always suspicious.  It’s such a joy to watch talent run off the leash like this.

The gorgeous Greek setting serves as a beautiful, somewhat juxtaposing backdrop, but importantly never draws attention away from the story as would often be the case in this sort of film when caressed by lesser hands.  It’s not simply a case of, “I don’t care if it makes sense: let’s just set it on some sunny Greek island to make it all sleek and sexy for the viewer” – the setting, while undeniably gorgeous, actually serves a purpose in leading the plot into subversive twists and turns.

It’s a smart, exciting little thriller that keeps you gripped from minute one, proving along the way how effective the simplest set-up and story can be when told in the right way.  While we’re rewarded with a couple of action set-pieces, it’s all about character and subtlety rather than chases and gun fights – a trait of which this genre has lately been so starved.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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