The Two Faces of January

Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst are the not-so-innocents abroad in "The Two Faces of January."
© 2014 Magnolia Pictures

(Reviewed September 21, 2014, by James Dawson)

Classy and classic, "The Two Faces of January" is a deliciously suspenseful film noir drama with an excellent three-person main cast, exotic foreign locations and an unwinkingly retro 1962 setting.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen, doing no-nonsense manly in the Ed Harris vein) seems affable enough at first as the old-enough-to-be-her-father husband of effortlessly sexy Colette (Kirsten Dunst, skillfully meandering between her character's new affluent-wife status and former party-girl petulance). Vacationing in Athens during an extended European vacation, they cross paths with hustling tour guide Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac), a multi-lingual fellow American who isn't above currency-conversion cheating even those comely clients he intends to seduce.

Rydal also has lingering psychological issues over disappointing his archaeology-professor father, whose funeral he didn't bother returning stateside to attend. The fact that Chester reminds Rydal of his deceased demanding dad, while the lushly womanly Colette inspires decidedly less familial feelings, inspires Rydal to help the two out when they find themselves on the run from the Greek police after an accidental murder.

Of course, there's also the matter of the very substantial fee that Rydal expects to receive for his fake-passport-procuring services. But hey, charm alone won't keep a guy in calamari and cigarettes.

The screenplay by first-time feature director Hossein Amini, adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Strangers on a Train"), mixes sexual tension, anxious paranoia and a sense of genuine menace to form a refreshingly adult thriller that never panders to the audience with anything vaguely resembling comic relief. Amini's previous screenwriting credits range from an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" to last year's samurai fantasy "47 Ronin."

Amini's work that has the most in common with the grimly compelling crime elements of this film is his tautly efficient screenplay for Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 "Drive," adapted from the James Sallis novel. What differentiates "The Two Faces of January" from that hyper-violent exercise is an approach here that tones down the brutality to concentrate more on the ever-shifting power dynamics among the three main characters.

Mortensen is award-worthy as the seethingly desperate and viciously practical Chester, clutching his suitcase full of ill-gotten gains even as he takes a side trip down into what may as well be Hell on the island of Crete. Dunst, having proven herself more than capable of conveying bitter resignation and existential angst in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," shifts believably between tranquility and torment. Isaac, last seen in the dark 19th-century drama "In Secret" and the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," is just crooked enough as Rydal to be intriguing without turning his shiftiness into schtick.

Largely faithful to the Highsmith novel, the film takes some excusable liberties with the final act while leaving the essential and unexpected twists and turns satisfyingly intact. Book and movie share the same unfortunately generic-sounding title, which contains a presumed reference to the two-faced god Janus that may be too subtle for its own good.

Beautifully shot, well acted and perfectly paced, "The Two Faces of January" is a perfect late-summer getaway for grown-ups who don't have a taste for turtles, transformers or talking raccoons.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A