Sydney Film Festival Review: The Two Faces of January (M) (UK/USA, 2014)


Not everything or everyone is quite what it seems in this gripping thriller that brings a wealthy American couple and a young shady tour guide together on an increasingly tense journey across the Mediterranean as they try to evade the law.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his gorgeous young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are holidaying in Greece, when they then strike up a friendship with Rydal (Oscar Isaac) an attractive man with a proficiency in multiple languages to be their tour guide. Unbeknownst to them he’s a bit of a petty swindler, easily conning them out of a few extra hundred dollars whilst showing them the sights. But what Rydal is not aware of is just how shady his tourists are and how their dark past will come back to haunt them all in a violent way.

One of the first things you notice about this film from debut director Hossein Amini is how visually appealing it is. From the opening scenes shot in and around the Parthenon, to the rolling hills of the Crete countryside and the bustling marketplace of Istanbul, this may as well have been akin to a tourism commercial for the Mediterranean. For a suspense thriller movie, we’re more accustomed to the locations being more claustrophobic or confined to the indoors, but it’s the opposite with this. The expanse of the countryside and panorama gives it a sense of lingering isolation and distance. Having all the locals not speaking English further pushes our characters into exotic foreign territory. But if you can manage to avert your eyes long enough to have your brain focus on the characters and the plot you’re in for a treat also.

The film is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Highsmith’s other novels such as Strangers On A Train and The Talented Mr Ripley were both successful adaptations that transitioned wonderfully into their film versions and from all accounts of this, Amini has done well on The Two Faces Of January also. There is a distinct feeling of sophistication and class at the beginning as we’re introduced to our wealthy couple. Chester strutting around in his crisp white suit with Colette hanging off him looking like a glitzy house-wife in her A-line dresses. But their elegance is a mere sugar coating atop the murky true nature of these two socialites. Initially Rydal sees an opportunity to make a fast buck from these two, and possibly even steal Colette away, but his foolhardy attitude ends up costing him way more than he anticipated.

A fascinating thing to watch is the shifting allegiances and the power struggles in this story that happens between the three core characters. Initially it seems that the MacFarland’s are purely reliant on Rydal, he speaks the language and knows his way around and offers to arrange them new passports for an exorbitant fee but soon the tables are turned. Chester begins dictating the arrangement, Rydal is to organise them safe passage out of Greece otherwise he will spill the beans on Rydal’s involvement. At first it seems that Colette had been unaware of Chester’s dodgy business practices back home but in a bit of a surprise it’s revealed that she potentially was just as complicit in his schemes. The change in Rydal and the sense of trust we see him build in Colette, only to have it so abruptly smashed upon discovering that she’s not so innocent, is palpable.

Viggo Mortensen’s depiction of Chester is so beautifully understated. Nothing is done in an over the top fashion, it’s measured and is a fabulous thing to watch. He can be a scoundrel but he executes it with enough charm to escape being conceived as truly villainous. As his paranoia grows and he begins to distrust both Rydal and Colette there are fleeting moments where he switches from enraged to desperate but they are so brief as to not overtake him entirely or turn him into a cartoon.

Oscar Isaac is also great in this, and his performance manages to carry the gravitas without being too hammy. We are given but brief glimpses into Rydal’s life before the MacFarland’s arrival, his father had been ill and recently died and he’s been avoiding his family for a long time, as well as holding onto a long standing but unexplained resentment to his father. At first there’s an allure to Chester for Rydal, not just coz he wants to scam him. Once it becomes apparent that their predicament is going to result in them having to partner up, multiple shifts in the character dynamic between them enables Isaac to really step up against the more senior actor.

Kristen Dunst’s Colette is likable enough but her character seems mainly to serve the purpose of being the love-interest and fiery fuel for the love-triangle between our two male leads. She does manage to emulate that unassuming beauty that the women of the 50’s and 60’s had, but is understandably restricted in how far her character can grow due to the film’s time period setting and sensibilities.

Amini is a genuinely talented scriptwriter (credits include Drive and The Wings Of The Dove) who has created an adaptation that focuses strongly on the characters first and foremost and then the narrative after that. He also incorporates a Hitchcock-ian style to the movie giving us a sense of unease to build to a climax that gives us a fitting ending to the story. Our three protagonists all have metaphorical (and even literal) blood on their hands but we still end up feeling sympathetic to their plight, they are perpetrators but also victims of their own crimes.


The Two Faces Of January is currently screening as part of Sydney Film Festival, the final screening will be held Saturday 14 June 8:30pm at Hayden Orpheum Cremorne, for more information or to purchase tickets go here. It has a wider release in Australia next Thursday, June 19th.


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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.