Patricia Highsmith's novels have provided fodder for more than two dozen film adaptations, a pantheon that now includes "The Two Faces of January." This 1964 suspense thriller has been memorably realized by writer-director Hossein Amini with an eye for film noir tropes. While it won't knock Anthony Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" from its pedestal, Amini's directorial debut is a quiet and graceful achievement that suffers from a number of shortcomings but still works on its own terms.
Set in Athens, the story revolves around Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a handsome American expat living in Greece who's acting as a tour guide for a group of young, affluent college girls. While he's talking about the "cruel tricks gods play on men," a rich American couple walking around the ruins catch his eye: Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst). When they meet and have dinner together, Rydal can't take his eyes off Colette, in spite of having his own young and rich date, Lauren (Daisy Bevan). That's when things start to unravel: Chester has to deal with the private eye sent by the mob to track him down and get their money back. A fight and murder ensue, triggering a series of other tragic events.
Thanks to the robust source material, the characters benefit from strong defining qualities, luring the audience to root for them no matter the moral repugnancy of their behavior. Among the cast, Dunst holds the least exciting role of the group, but Mortensen's elegant Chester is a multilayered creation with a beautifully enacted sense of moral ambiguity. Isaac shows a considerable amount of talent and maturity in this outstanding followup to his "Inside Llewyn Davis" performance, here showing a knack for foreign languages. British-Iranian director Amini knows how to work with his actors, tunneling beneath the surface of their characters and bringing them truthfully to the screen.
The exotic setting and backdrop further enhance the story. 1962 represented a period when men like Chester, who had been on the European front in World War II, returned to the Old Continent as tourists and smart Ivy League graduates like Rydal bummed around Europe without worrying about student loans: Such was the simplistic appeal and joie de vivre of the Mediterranean lifestyle. But that is precisely where the film comes up short: in comparison to "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Two Faces of January" fails to convey the excitement of life abroad by its leads, while the romance between Colette and Rydal routinely falls flat. Amini struggles to convey the apparent sexual tension between his characters, yielding a half-baked drama all the more obvious because of its potential.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of atmospheric details worth luxuriating in: The Spanish composer Alberto Iglesia's dynamic score pushes the story through some of its slower moments, while Marcel Zyskind's crisp cinematography, with its yellow and blue tones, yields a true visual delight in spite of the cold drama at play. With a sense of beauty constantly at the forefront of the experience, "The Two Faces of January" does justice to the material without fully cracking it. Highsmith fans should be able to overcome its shortcomings; others might be better off checking out the book first.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnolia Pictures will release the film stateside, when interest in its cast should yield solid VOD numbers, if significantly less substantial returns at the box office given the mixed word of mouth.