Review: 'The Two Faces of January' is a muted take on Patricia Highsmith

Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac are criminals in hot water abroad in "The Two Faces of January," a too calm take on Patricia Highsmith.

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst traipse about Greece in "The Two Faces of January." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst traipse about Greece in "The Two Faces of January."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

 

'The Two Faces of January'
Director: Hossin Amini
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

 

“The Two Faces of January” is a true labor of love — a project that’s clung to the mind of seasoned screenwriter Hossein Amini (best known for penning “Drive”) for some 15 years. Based on a 1964 page turner from Patricia Highsmith, it’s the only film Amini has ever wanted to direct as well as write. Yet you don’t really sense a lot of passion on display. It’s more like a job well done — a clean, efficient, old school thriller that could have come out when the source was published. The film-friendly Highsmith’s work has been adapted by Hitchcock (“Strangers on a Train”) and European filmmakers (“Purple Noon,” based on “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), and Amini’s directorial debut aims to fuse the two into a bastard stepchild.

 

But the two — on-simmer thrills and cool Euro ennui — go together pretty well, even with the corker of a plot. Its antihero is Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American in Greece who’s turned into a low-level conman, mostly targeting pretty, oblivious young women. He winds up drawn to a vacationing couple, Chester and Colette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst). Thing is, there’s of the con persuasion too: Chester is a fraudster currently evading a spoiled Ponzi scheme. When he accidentally kills a man looking for him, Rydal finds himself helping them burrow deeper into the underground.

 

Highsmith loved digging into the minds of socio- and psychopaths, ones so used to their problems that they don’t see what they’re doing is wrong. But “January” isn’t one of her better novels. The plot doesn’t necessarily need any of the three principals to be criminals to work; lawless sides may better explain a few of their actions, but the story would work just as fine with Chester as a desperate innocent making rash decisions. (Mortensen becomes as unraveled as anyone would in his situation.) In fact, making everyone a professional scammer means viewers may expect another wave of twists en route, which then never come.

Then again, the lack of modern thriller shocks makes this soothingly retro in more productive ways. Once freed of expecting goosing to come, we’re allowed to marvel at how Highsmith — and Amini’s adaptation — nimbly roots around in the criminal mind. The tension in her works is psychological; we wonder what people are thinking and what heinous actions will result from said thinking. Amini keeps his characters largely internal, allowing his camera to prowl over the sights and hang with leisurely conversations rather than rev up the thrills. It’s a respectable, muted film, grooving on its Euro-Hitch vibe and its three fine performances. (Dunst works real sympathy into someone who on page — and sometimes here too — is simply The Wife.) But vague appreciation is all one can get.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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