The Two Faces of January: The Best Thrillers Take Their Time

A thriller

  • Written by  Hossein Amini, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
  • Directed by  Hossein Amini

The less you know about The Two Faces of January when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. So I’m going to try talking about this thriller without giving away much of the plot.

Wish me luck.

The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different kind of thriller. Headhunters was funny and outlandish, telling a preposterous story in an entertaining way. But the events in January feel like they could happen, and if you make the wrong mistake, they could happen to you. The picture gives you time to become familiar with the characters, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems entirely likely, but impossible to escape.

Screenwriter/director Hossein Amini adapted the story from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Her other novels include Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley–quite a track record. It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans spending leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. The period setting doesn’t play an important role; the film could have been set it in the present without losing any atmosphere.

I think I can safely tell you a bit about the three lead characters. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy couple on vacation in Greece. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) has been living in Greece for a year, is estranged from his family back in the States, and is scratching out a living as a tour guide–with some petty larceny thrown in for good measure.

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Rydel knows the culture and speaks the language. In one early scene, he helps Chester buy Colette a bracelet, and uses his linguistic skills and knowledge of the currency to pocket a considerable amount for himself.

Of course there’s going to be a triangle. All three stars are exceptionally good looking (that’s why they’re not just actors but stars). And Colette, much younger than her husband, is obviously attracted to the young and handsome Rydel.

But no, the love triangle doesn’t drive the story. That’s a job for crime and deception. Who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? I think I better stop there.

The Two Faces of January marks Amini’s debut as a director, although he has been an established screenwriter for years (The Wings of the Dove, Drive). Yet he handles the film like a pro. Marcel Zyskind’s photography captures both the beauty of the locations and the terror of the characters’ predicament. The editing by Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris holds and builds the suspense despite the relatively slow pacing by thriller standards.

The slow pacing does a lot to make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

And if you love to be scared at the movies, you really need to see The Two Faces of January. And you need to see it with as much ignorance as possible.