Directed by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac
Beware those that fascinate you. It’s certainly a take home from countless Patricia Highsmith novels that dive deep into the dark, hidden recesses of her characters’ psyches. Where would we be without her chilling and absorbing stories? Probably in a better adjusted, less crime ridden, and more boring world presumably. Choosing his passion project, an adaptation of Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January for his directorial debut, Hossein Amini succeeds in crafting a compelling if ultimately detached thriller that rolls through a beautifully glossy Greek backdrop.
The action kicks off at the Acropolis where Oscar Isaac’s charming Greek speaking American Rydal spends his days scamming naïve tourists and luring impressionable women back to his small apartment. It’s here that he first sets eyes on his fellow American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Collette (Kirsten Dunst). Intrigued by the sophisticated older man and his glamorous younger wife he sets himself up as their personal guide and confidante. Chester, a scammer on a whole different level, sees through the young pretender’s smooth talk – it takes one to know one after all – but Collette is firmly taken in.
However, when Chester’s past catches up with him in his Athens hotel room, he’s forced into drastic and particularly brutal action. Rydal, sensing a quick buck, and inextricably drawn to the couple, hitches his wagon to theirs to help them flee the country.
If you’ve never been to this part of the world fear not because you’re about to get the holiday brochure tour. Famous sites pop up bathed in splashes of golden sunshine. The sea always glistens, clothes are starched, even after heavy wear, and a sense of refined culture hangs in the air. It’s a series of dazzling postcards stitched together for an hour and a half.
As ever with a Highsmith story, it’s not what lies on the surface, pretty as it is, that really matters though. A constantly shifting power dynamic develops as the trio play with each other, each trying to manoeuvre the others to their advantage. The majority of the games take place between Chester and Rydal, fighting for Collette, and on a deeper level, for each other’s approval. A thin veneer of civility stretches across their conversations, hostility visibly straining to break free just beneath the surface.
It’s actually Chester that first draws Rydal’s attentions. Struggling already with a difficult relationship with his own father, he finds himself drawn to the older man, seeing in him reminders of his own lost father figure. As the balance tilts though, Chester’s calm exterior is slowly stripped away, revealing a petty and jealous man that sees threats everywhere.
As they flee to the Greek islands hunted by the authorities while they await false papers from Rydal’s contact, the ties connecting their emotional triangle begin to tighten shifting steadily from fascination to suspicion, psychological menace and physical threat. Amini succeeds in escalating growing tensions, aided by nuanced performances from Mortensen and Isaac. Both men start by masking their feelings effectively before the strain begins to show, breaking out in paranoia and panic. Dunst is left with much less to do compared to her co-stars, but she just about manages to hold her own as their power battle ebbs and flows.
The Two Faces of January’s biggest problem is the emotional detachment Amini cultivates for too long. He gets caught up admiring the mind games his protagonists engage in, presenting it as an impressively pure yet emotionally dry game of chess. This introduces a growing sense of distance. As their actions are supposed to be hotting up and their predicament worsening, they are moving further apart emotionally. There’s certainly intellectual stimulation but it fails to run alongside emotion as the denouement approaches.
Given the amount of action that goes on inside the head of Highsmith’s protagonists, it’s no surprise that this might be a problem. Amini builds absorbing characters that each hint at rich internal worlds without managing to fully draw their dark and compelling motivations to the surface. What’s left is a pretty travelogue that builds up enough heat to intrigue without ever coming to the boil.