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One of the masters of subverting and inverting the norms of the thriller/mystery/suspense genres, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train) was a writer who produced novels that utilized all the advantages of pulse-quickening stories, but to highly unusual ends. Hers are not thrillers that place all their narrative investment in questions like who's around that corner, or will this character get to the MacGuffin before the villain does, etc; rather, her thrillers are really character studies in disguise, novels that use the tenets of the suspense genre as a means of keeping the audience interested while Highsmith goes about doing what she's really interested in doing - exploring various psyches to great degrees of sophistication, while taking a great pleasure in her own style.
Almost like a trojan horse, these films understand that suspense is an extremely powerful way to engage an audience's senses to a heightened degree.
I'm a fan of films that do the same thing, and there's been a superb crop of them in recent years. Films like A Most Wanted Man, The American (both by director Anton Corbijn), Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (both by Andrew Dominik), Drive, Cold Weather, Simon Killer, and, going a little farther back, The Limey and Out of Sight (both by Steven Soderbergh) all manage to be thrillers without really being thrillers, per se - that is, they take what they like from the conventions of the genre, but they have greater artistic fish to fry. (For the record, this is hardly a contemporary invention: Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai - 1967, featuring Alain Delon as an icy-cool hitman - is perhaps the ur-film of the genre.) Fan though I am of thrillers in general, there's a thrill in the subversion of genre expectations that far surpasses what any simple retread of genre cliches could produce, and so these films that both adopt and ignore the conventions of such stories have a special place in my heart.
Hossein Amini's directorial debut The Two Faces of January (based on a Highsmith novel; incidentally, Amini wrote Drive), which opened last Friday, is one such film. It follows a wealthy American couple traveling in Europe who turn to a poor tour guide for help when the man unwittingly commits a crime. (To say more would be to spoil the fun.) As far as the thriller conventions go - twists, turns, complex setups - the film is rather sparse: it sets up its central tension, which is the question of whether or not the guide can help the couple, or whether, perhaps, he might turn them in - and lets it run. Tellingly for this sort of film, the picture ends up being less about thrills and escaping the law than it is about the circumnavigation of the heart, as a love triangle dynamic begins to emerge between the three outlaws.
Once the suspense hook is in, the filmmaker can tell a story about anything they want, and the audience will pay rapt attention, because the larger question of suspense maintains interest.
The Two Faces of January, then, is truly a relationship drama at heart, but the ingenious manner in which it uses the conventions of the thriller genre to aid its storytelling bears observing. Like all filmmakers who successfully partake in this realm, Amini understands that the suspense hooks of a thriller - will someone be murdered? Who is the killer? Will so-and-so get caught? - are extremely powerful, powerful enough to keep an audience hooked for an extremely long time, even if those questions go more or less unaddressed for much of the film's running time. Once the suspense hook is in, the filmmaker can tell a story about anything they want, and the audience will pay rapt attention, because the larger question of suspense maintains interest. Obviously, the filmmaker hopes that whatever other questions they raise - those of human nature, character and, in this film's case, the heart - will be sources of interest as well. Almost like a trojan horse, these films understand that suspense is an extremely powerful way to engage an audience's senses to a heightened degree, which is the ideal situation with which any film should be viewed.