We get a nice reminder of what a great actor Viggo Mortesnsen is in The Two Faces of January, a fine piece of suspenseful filmmaking from writer-director Hossein Amini, the man who penned Drive.
While vacationing in Athens, Greece, in the early 1960s, Chester, an investment broker, and his wife, Colette (Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), come across Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide who tricks young college girls out of their cash. Chester and Colette seem innocent enough—until a private detective shows up at their hotel, looking for payback on some of Chester’s bad investments. It turns out Chester, who presents himself as a wealthy stock market mogul, has a checkered past.
The couple needs to flee Athens, and solicits the help of Rydal and his connections. Rydal assists—assured that he will make a lot of money. His intentions shift when more is revealed about Chester’s past and personality. Colette slowly but surely becomes Rydal’s romantic target.
This is one of those stories in which a happy ending doen’t seem at all possible. The three main actors do an excellent job of making you care for their characters, even as they do increasingly stupid things. Nobody in the movie is evil, exactly, yet their actions lead to unforgivable crimes and a body count.
While The Two Faces of January works as a good suspense thriller, the film also works as a brutal case study of a man gripped by jealousy. The more trouble in which Chester finds himself, the more he becomes obsessed with the notion of his younger wife cheating with the handsome Rydal. Chester’s predicament leads to long drinking binges, ill-timed naps and far too many opportunities for his wife to go astray.
Mortensen is fantastic at portraying meek men with molten underbellies. His Chester isn’t too far removed from Tom Stall, his career-best character in A History of Violence. Chester has a gentle heart, it seems, but a violent war past and his willingness to swindle shady characters makes him into a potentially monstrous man who will not only go down swinging, but take loved ones with him.
As this film’s ingénue, Dunst gets perhaps her most mature role yet. It’s been 20 years since what may be her second-most-mature role role, that of the permanently youthful but scarily mature blood sucker in Interview With the Vampire. Her work here stands alongside her performance in Melancholia as some of her best work.
Isaac is one of the more reliable young actors out there, judging by his work here, in Inside Llewyn Davis and in Drive.
This is the feature directorial debut for Amini. He has a great eye for the 1960s period and exotic locations, something helped greatly by the fact that he was able to shoot on location in Greece and Turkey. Much about the film recalls Hitchcock at this best. The casting of Dunst reminds of Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
In a strange way, The Two Faces of January becomes a story about redemption, as it provides Mortensen with a final scene that gives compelling closure. It’s his best film since 2009’s The Road. The film is about mistakes, and how those mistakes can rip through lives like shark teeth through a seal’s torso. It’s a brutal story, elegantly told.
The Two Faces of January is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Oct. 10 at Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).