Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been the basis for one of Hitchcock’s greatest movies, the 1951 Strangers on a Train, as well as the endearingly nasty thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999, directed by Anthony Minghella). While The Two Faces of January is nowhere near as compelling as those films, it’s still worth a look for anyone who values the pleasures of suspense and the vicarious lure of lust and larceny.
It’s also an opportunity to see three somewhat underrated actors take on the kind of tough, nuanced roles that don’t win awards but that stick in your mind well after the movie is over. Viggo Mortensen has lost his youthful fleshiness without diminishing his considerable sex appeal. Kirsten Dunst truly inhabits the part of a young blonde wife who is nowhere near as innocent, or as ignorant, as she first appears. Dunst has more range than might be apparent from her biggest roles; she was a different kind of doomed blonde as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies in the underrated 2001 The Cat’s Meow and a hysterically bitchy maid of honor in the 2012 comedy of nastiness Bachelorette.
Isaac, who played the title character in last year’s Coen Brothers whatsis Inside Llewyn Davis, impressed me the most. I’m realizing now just how much his understated charisma made that movie as entertaining as it was. Llewyn Davis was an obnoxious character in an unforgiving world, but Isaac kept you interested in him despite the fatalism of the story that trapped him.
In January Isaac is sexy, soulful, frustrated and, well, not all that bright. Playing an expat American tour guide in Greece in 1962, his character Rydal befriends rich American tourists Chester and Colette MacFarland (Mortensen and Dunst). Rydal, who skates along on his charm and good looks, is intrigued by the chance to skim a bit of dough and also by his attraction to the friendly, though seemingly happily married, Colette.
Unfortunately this small-time con artist has gotten mixed up with someone who has taken to heart the motto “If you’re going to steal, steal big.” As is often the case in a Highsmith story, the MacFarlands are not who they seem to be, there’s plenty of guilt to go around, and homicide of various stripes is always a highly probable plot point.
Writer/director Hossein Amini keeps the tension, sexual and otherwise, ratcheted up as this trio become fugitives, fleeing Athens for Crete as the long, haphazard arms of the law slowly close in. Amini, a screenwriter on such varied projects as Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive, The Four Feathers, and The Wings of the Dove, does a nice job in what is, surprisingly, his first feature-directing gig, keeping the story moving through most of the movie’s 96 minutes. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography makes the starkly sun-bleached hills and ruins of Crete look less like the cradle of a civilization and more like a post-apocalyptic wasteland as these characters, roped together by guilt, violence and greed, keep trying for escape and/or one last chance.
The movie’s virtues are diminished by a drawn-out chase scene through the bazaars of Istanbul near the end, and also by a lack of the character-based ambiguity and perversity that made Ripley and Train so memorably unsettling. But give January a try to see three easy-on-the-eyes pros do some solid screen acting.