The Power of Paranoia

"The Two Faces of January" features fine performances from Viggo Mortensen and others

We get a nice reminder of what a great actor Viggo Mortensen 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 '60s, Chester the investment broker and his wife Collette (Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) come across Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide who tricks young college girls out of their cash. The affluent couple seems 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 and troubled past.

Circumstances call for the couple to flee Athens, soliciting the help of Rydal and his connections. Rydal assists with the escape plan, assured that he will make a lot of money. His intentions shift when more is revealed about Chester's past and personality. Collette slowly but surely becomes Rydal's romantic target.

This is one of those stories where happy endings don'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 what can be defined as evil, and yet their actions lead to unforgivable crimes and a body count.

Beyond simply being a good suspense thriller about a man trying to escape his mistakes, January also works as a brutal case study of a man gripped by jealousy. The more trouble Chester finds himself in, 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 and excuses for his wife to go astray.

Mortensen is one of the best at portraying meek men with latent molten underbellies. His Chester isn't too far removed from Tom Stall, his career best character in "The History of Violence." Chester has a gentle heart on the surface, but a violent war past and willingness to swindle shady characters combines for 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 her second most mature role, being 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 the Coens's "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Drive." Super geeks should take note that this movie provides a chance to see a future star of "Star Wars," Aragorn and Mary Jane on the screen at the same time.

This is the feature directorial debut for Amini, and he has a great eye for the '60s period and exotic locations, something helped greatly by the fact he was able to shoot on location in Greece and Turkey. Much about the look and feel of 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" winds up being a story about redemption, as well, providing 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 mistakes, sometimes accidental and sometimes intentional, can rip through lives like shark teeth through a seal's torso. It's a brutal story, elegantly told.

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