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Cinema Signal: A movie that's way ahead of the audience instead of the other way around. No reservations: Green light! MOBILE version |
. "The Two Faces of January"

From the screenwriting hand of Hossein Amini ("Drive") comes this debut directorial achievement which, on a scale of solid tension and jolting unpredictability, is the best noir thriller I've seen this year and ranks among the best I've ever seen.

Basically a three-character yarn, it's set in Greece and Istanbul circa 1962 when wealthy American tourists Chester and Collete MacFarland (hard-edged Viggo Mortensen, "A History of Violence," and alluring Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia") catch the eye of American expat Rydal (Oscar Isaac), doing his thing as a tour guide leading his group around that symbol of Classical Greece, the Athenian Parthenon when the two men's eyes meet.

The sizing up would seem to be mutual -- but the conclusions vastly differ. Rydal explains his interest to new girlfriend Lauren (Daisy Bevan) (from the tourist pack -- whose interest in Rydal seems to be more than guidance) as the man's resemblance to his father who has just died.

In this land of destiny, the couples spot each other again that evening in a restaurant. Rydal strides across the room to pay a visit and to get the mystery of the eye contact out in the open. Some sort of bond is formulated but its precise nature couldn't be guessed in all the years since the Acropolis gave rise to its major structure (438 BC).

MacFarland writes it off as he, a tourist, needing the American's help, and hires Rydal to negotiate his travel affairs, which will involve Rydal's underground contacts for phony passports. Stepping into criminality, the relationship takes a new shape and circuitous path that may well lead to a lethal partnership and very deep regrets. One thing's certain: the man Rydal spotted earlier isn't the man whom he'd imagined. Mr. Macfarland is about to make decisions that will be a surprise to everyone!

Having helped Chester pick out a gold bracelet for Collette, the discovery that it was left behind in his taxi brings him back to Macfarland's hotel to return the bauble. (We can discuss the source of this honesty vibe until after you've seen the pic). There, the multi-lingual tour guide finds his man doing something that will turn this alliance into something different, if not crazed and inexplicable.

Rydal will learn the truth and that will up the ante further. Suddenly, he's on the run with a man who won't let go of his two suitcases -- one full of money. Now, the conman cum tour guide is a part of a murder, a partner in crime, a patsy. And, things get worse from there.

Basing his screenplay on Patricia Highsmith's 1994 novel, Amini has produced a character mystery almost beyond belief for its shock turns that takes us on ever greater depths of betrayal, depravity and atrocity. The genius of its invention is the writers' strict adherence to credible human conduct and a stunning example of unrelieved intensity, not a minute to spare pacing, and suspense level that affects your breathing. "Never a dull moment" in a concise and galvanizing piece of work.

And I haven't even mentioned the attraction between Rydal and Colette.

The craftsmanship in acting, staging and atmosphere is nothing short of superb, the cast being the essential factor in the fullest realization of the magnificent screenplay. In the perfection of character interpretation. Mortensen not only has the visible aspect of a Dick Tracy style villain but he plays it with cool, uncrackable nerve, facial expression and consistently smart arrogance. Dunst is the gem of the piece, fragile, trusting, suspicious and, of course, emotional.

Isaac proves that what he had going in "Llewyn Davis" was no fluke. His is a mixture of charm and intelligence with the guile of a hustler yet with a moral core. It's easy to see a big future for his actor with big talent.

As this film seems to be undervalued by the media, I'll repeat for the benefit of fans of mystery, character drama, whodunits, magnificent acting and tight suspense: you will not want to miss this film! For all the elements stated above, this is that rare movie that's way ahead of the viewer instead of the other way around. There's nothing missing and, in my estimation, it's Oscar material.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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