Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) is known for creating wonderfully amoral characters. Hossein Amini’s adaptation of Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January features two such dishonorable souls: Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American operating as a tour guide in Athens who scams money at every opportunity, and Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an American traveling with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) who has a few dark secrets in his past.
Rydal enchants Colette when they meet one afternoon, and he agrees to take her and Chester out the next day. He helps them purchase a bracelet (pocketing a decent markup in the process) and bids them good night after dinner. But when Colette leaves the bracelet behind, Rydal’s effort to return it to her lands him in hot water. In their hotel, Chester has been implicated in a sticky (read: illegal) situation. He employs Rydal for help. Soon, Rydal is arranging for new passports for the couple, and keeping them company on a side trip to Crete.
The Two Faces of January is wonderfully sinister and seductive at first. Hossein films the action in bright caramel-tinted light, with the gorgeous actors wearing elegantly appointed clothing in beautiful sets. As the film progresses, there are marvelous non-verbal sequences, such as one in which Rydal becomes fully aware of what Chester was involved with back in the hotel, or when Chester snoops around Rydal’s room in a new hotel where waiting for the new IDs. A key scene (which should not be discussed) unfolds without music, which makes it all the more intense and powerful.
However, once the characters’ motives come to light–they involve sex and money among other concerns–things turn a bit ugly. The Two Faces of January, which starts out as a very cool, subdued thriller, soon becomes, well, lukewarm. A critical episode in which two characters are going through customs fails to generate any real suspense in part because Hossein paces the scene too slowly. He seems to be trying to milk the drama of “Will they get caught?” for more than it’s worth. The film is best when viewers can engage in a game of “who is conning whom?” Once the hand is tipped, The Two Faces of January plays out to its logical, predictable conclusion and it becomes boring.
That said, the three leads are marvelous to watch throughout. Viggo Mortensen delivers a flinty performance as the roguish Chester, and Oscar Isaac exudes charm even in Rydal’s most desperate moments. And Kirsten Dunst is quite feisty at apex of the romantic triangle.
The Two Faces of January captures the flavor of Highsmith, but one can’t help wish it were just a bit better.
The Two Faces of January opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.