There’s something refreshing about new movies that rehash classic genres without feeling the need to have a clever spin on the tried-and-true formula. As far as thrillers go, The Two Faces of January may lack in flashy gimmicks or post-modern twists, but has solid storytelling and character acting in spades. First-time director Hossein Amini draws favourably from Hitchcock and European crime capers for this stylish, sun-soaked take on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel.
The film opens in Athens, circa 1962, where Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac, reuniting with Drive scribe Amini) works as a tour guide and small-time con artist who feels no qualms about scamming rich, pretty women out of a few drachma. During a tour on the Acropolis, Rydal encounters fellow Americans Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortenson) and his much younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Drawn to their sophistication and wealth (and Chester’s uncanny resemblance to his recently deceased father), Rydal becomes inextricably tied to the couple when Chester’s past transgressions come to light and the trio find themselves on the run.
Like any good suspense story, the central crime is merely a McGuffin for what’s truly at stake: toxic masculinity (a favourite topic of Highsmith, she of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley fame). Mortensen—having a banner year with the recent premieres of Jauja and Far From Men on the festival circuit—blusters and charms as the self-made investment broker, whose pride and working-class upbringing clashes with Rydal’s Ivy league roots. Isaac has the more difficult job in the everyman-who-knew-too-much role, but truly shines when the rising tension between Chester and Rydal reaches its breaking point. In a nearly wordless scene over a dining table, Isaac’s eyes and gestures speak volumes.
The biggest source of trouble is the film’s treatment of its lead female character. Colette has the dubious distinction of being both disposable and indispensable to the story, and Dunst does her best to personify what amounts to a plot device. Amini does, however, smartly elide over the cartoonish nymphomaniac tendencies of the Colette in the source novel; here, her attraction to Rydal is driven by weariness and frustration rather than an uncontrolled libido. There is a deftness to the way Rydal and Colette’s casual intimacies develop, which are perfectly innocent but at the same time easily construed by Chester’s jealous eye as something more carnal.
Some plot contrivances aside (though apropos to the genre tropes at play), The Two Faces of January is entertaining, retro-tinged fare—one could easily imagine a young Cary Grant, James Stewart, or Grace Kelly taking the place of the core ensemble: in this case, it’s a compliment of the highest order.