★★★★ | The Two Faces Of January

After an overly long gestation period, this lesser-known psychological thriller from novelist Patricia Highsmith finally makes it to the big screen.

The year is 1962 and the story opens on the sunny steps of the Acropolis where two American tourists, Chester McFarland and his much younger bride Collette, are having fun enjoying the splendor of the Ruins, whilst nearby Rydal a handsome charismatic Tour Guide has a small group of young wealthy debutantes eating out of his hands. At Collette’s insistence, Chester hires the guide to take them sightseeing although he quickly realises that the young man is not all he claims to be.

It turns out that neither is Chester, and the past that he is running from is far more complicated and filled with danger. That night a Private Investigator turns up at Chester’s hotel room and threatens to expose him unless he repays the money he swindled from some Clients in a Ponzi-type scheme. After a struggle in which he kills the man, Chester realises that he will need to quickly flee Athens before the murder is discovered. So he turns to Rydal sensing that the young man will know someone who can get them new passports to replace the ones that the Hotel had taken off them when they checked in.

As they all need to hide out until the new passports can be forged, Rydal suggests that they take the night ferry to the distant island of Crete. However when they arrive there the Hotel will not give them rooms without proper identity, so they catch a decrepit local bus into the remote heart of the island hoping that a more basic village inn would take them in regardless. As the journey gets more difficult and fraught the trio seem less elegant and assured particularly as there are strong undercurrents of mistrust developing between them, especially the two men. Rydal seems fixated with Chester who he thinks off as a substitute figure for his father whom is estranged from, whilst on the other hand, Chester suspects that the young man wants to steal Colette away from him.

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Suspicion leads to treachery and the pace gets more frenetic as they try to keep one eye on each other whilst keeping the other eye looking out for the authorities in hot pursuit as they start catching up on them. It’s very clear that it’s not going to end well for any of them.

It’s hardly a Hitchcock masterpiece like his adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on A Train, nor is it Minghella’s take on the novelist’s Talented Mr Ripley but Oscar-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini in his directing debut does an admirable job keeping the tension level high in this gripping thriller. The moody cinematography is particular is superb adding a very dramatic visual look to this period piece. Whilst the lead actors Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst may not have a great deal of chemistry as a couple, they put in really fine performances as the troubled McFarlands that one expects from these two talented actors The real joy, however, is Oscar Isaac who was completely mesmerizing as Rydal, and this following hotly on from his riveting turn in Inside Lllewyn Davies clearly shows that he is destined to be a major star.