The novels of Patricia Highsmith present ripe material for grown-up thrillers. From the nervy tension of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to the sensual politics and locales of The Talented Mr. Ripley, her works suggest exotic settings, cerebral sparring and involving characters. In helming his own adaptation of Highsmith’s 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, first-time director Hossein Amini (previously best known as the screenwriter of Drive and The Wings of The Dove) gets two out of these three traits in place, though the missing third is notable in its absence.
Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, an American working as a tour guide at a sun-kissed Parthenon. Like all Americans abroad (at least in the movies. The real thing can be a different story.), he holds all-comers, locals and tourists alike, in the palm of his ridiculously-tanned hand. After shooting the wintry Inside Llewyn Davis, this role must have seemed a no-brainer for Isaac. Rydal’s job offers him opportunities to swindle tourists, and a couple of American visitors take his fancy. However, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) prove unwieldy marks, and he finds himself intrigued by them, particularly the much younger and lively wife.
As with Rydal for Isaac, the roles of the MacFarlands could have appealed to Mortensen and Dunst at least in surface terms. The costumes alone are well worth a gander; it’s all sun hats and beige suits. The lines in Mortensen’s suits and face make him look like a particularly pickled man from Del Monte. They arrive in Athens on the latest leg of a European trip, and Rydal smells easy money. The problem is we’re in on the action with little emotional establishment. It’s all of five minutes into the film when Rydal and the MacFarlands are getting acquainted. At just 96 minutes, Amini’s film is too determined not to outstay its welcome, to get to the thrills. How can there be any risk of thrills when we’re not all that concerned for the characters?
After an encounter with a snooping private detective (David Warshofsky) turns messy, Rydal helps the couple get out of Athens, but as he learns more of the MacFarlands’ past he realises he’s in over his head. It all sounds very intriguing, but The Two Faces of January rarely attains the suspenseful highs to which it aspires. The film is primarily a two-hander, as Rydal and Chester engage in psychological sparring fuelled by desire for Colette, whilst also espousing a strange father-son dynamic as time goes on. This does mean Dunst is saddled with a thankless role, all pouts and wilful ignorance. The potential for tension increases as the film goes on, as the two men find their fates entangled. Isaac holds his own against a finely craggy Mortensen, even if his role does involve much staring agog.
For all the handsome sets and ruins, the whole affair needs to relax. Highsmith’s novels took time to establish character traits that were just that, and not plot developments. Amini can build tension, but he and his editors have clearly cut out some of the less pacy elements of the story. The joins show, and they negate the narrative smoothness a story like The Two Faces of January needs. The tailoring on display has nary a string out of place, but the final edit is cut a little too short.