In Hossein Amini’s—the screenwriter of “Drive”—thriller “The Two Faces of January” things start off so simple and pedestrian that you wait eagerly on the edge of your seat for the trouble to start. An American, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are vacationing in Greece during the early sixties. They visit ancient ruins, sit in outdoor coffee shops and meet a fellow American Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who works as a tour guide. The three go out to dinner and seem to get along well.
However, things go wrong fast. Trouble, in the form of a private investigator, shows up at Chester and Collette’s hotel room. Chester is a financial advisor and the investigator represents “clients” that have been scammed by him. With a gun in his pocket he’s come to collect money from Chester. Things get even worse when Chester kills the investigator and soon enough he and Collette go on the run. Rydal goes with them because he knows his way around Greece and knows how to get them fake passports.
“The Two Faces of January” can be classified as an On the Run thriller but Amini handles things in a more patient, subtle way compared to most other movies in this subgenre. We aren’t bombarded with car chases and shootouts with cops or other baddies, in fact there really isn’t that much action. We never hear about the “clients” again and no other cronies are sent after them. Instead Amini keeps things concentrated on the trio’s relationship and ratchets up the tension. It’s suggested that Chester and Collette have had to run from trouble before and this time it begins to take a toll on their relationship. On top of that, Chester begins to think Rydal may be trying to get with Collette.
More than anything, the picture is about the gradual demise of Chester, and Mortensen’s nuanced performance perfectly illustrates that. At the beginning he’s well put together and assured; he wears a sleek expensive white suit and a Panama hat, similar to Klaus Kinski’s getup in “Fitzcarraldo.” He’s relaxed and in control. But when he goes on the run that façade slowly melts away. He becomes increasingly frantic and paranoid. He drinks heavily, neglects Collette and is mean to Rydal for no reason. By the movie’s end he’s reduced to a pathetic mess.
Isaac is also good, his Rydal initially comes off as charming and helpful but his real intentions and motivations aren’t always clear. Why is he going to so much trouble to help a couple he doesn’t even know? Does he actually want to get with Collette or is that in Chester’s imagination? Dunst does fine in her role even though she’s not given much to do. Except for a couple scenes Collette isn’t that interesting and serves more as a point of tension between the two males.
“The Two Faces of January” is a good, tense little thriller but it’s also slight. Amini does a great job of sustaining surprise and building intrigue in his characters throughout but the ending feels too neat and underwhelming. And even though it travels from Greece, to Crete and finally to Istanbul, the movie feels rather small in scope. Still, thanks to two very solid performances from Mortensen and Isaac and a large amount of anxiety, the picture is worthwhile.