Patricia Highsmith provides the plot and writer-director Hossein Amini supplies the culture in “The Two Faces of January,” a gripping old-school suspenser starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac that plays like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” minus the sultry sexual chemistry among its three leads. While the love-triangle dynamic lacks spark, this tony adaptation should have no trouble seducing Hitchcock fans and smarthouse types with its golden-hued tour of southeast Europe. What better way to see Turkey and Greece than in the company of such beautiful law-breakers as they try to stay two steps ahead of the local authorities?
Originally developed through “Ripley” director Anthony Minghella’s Mirage shingle, this lesser-known Highsmith novel has been smoldering on Amini’s to-do list for nearly 15 years. Best known as the screenwriter of such subtext-rich adaptations as “The Wings of the Dove” and “Drive,” Amini excels at conveying the subtle, unspoken tensions between characters, selecting a tightrope-risky example with which to make his directorial debut and orchestrating it with aplomb.
Opening on the steps of the Acropolis, the thriller introduces two seemingly opposite Americans: Rich and relaxed, Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) radiates wealth, leading his much-younger blonde bride, Colette (Dunst), through the Grecian ruins. Looking swarthy and olive-skinned enough to pass for a local, Isaac’s Rydal is just as attentive to the giggling debutantes who employ him as a guide. At Colette’s insistence, the couple hires Rydal for a tour, inviting this potentially dangerous stranger into their inner circle.
It’s easy to spot Rydal’s con, skimming from the ladies as he exchanges their dollars for drachmas, but his deception is no match for Chester’s. Though he carries himself like old money, the fashionable gentleman made his wealth selling shares in imaginary oil fields — a situation that becomes complicated soon enough when a private detective turns up and unwisely threatens Chester with a gun. After killing the P.I. in the ensuing struggle, Chester has no one but Rydal to trust for fresh passports and friendly support, mistakenly convincing himself that the kid’s only motive is the money.
While the exotic backdrops entice and natty costumes ease us back to 1962, “The Two Faces of January’s” true pleasures lie in the way Amini sets up and then subverts snap character judgments, revealing the slippery Rydal to be capable of profound loyalty, whereas the seemingly proper Chester turns out to be monstrously amoral. Colette isn’t quite so easy to read, and through some oversight of either writing or direction, her own ambitions (which, in the novel at least, involve longing for something more than Chester can give her) never quite come into focus.
The film seems to lack some key scene in which she gives Rydal — and more importantly, the audience — reason to fall in love with her. Instead, Amini emphasizes a deeper Freudian connection between Rydal and the MacFarlands, suggesting that Chester reminds the expat guide of his own father, whose disapproval may have driven him to Europe in the first place, and whose funeral wasn’t reason enough for Rydal to return home. Interacting with Chester gives him a chance re-create — and potentially to repair — the strained dynamic with his dad, while inviting a forbidden Oedipal temptation in the form of Colette.
Highsmith has always been a goldmine for such complex interpersonal dynamics, and Amini exploits the father-son thing to the fullest, overstepping the pic’s admirable subtlety somewhat in a final act of contrition between the two characters. But as any student of Hitchcock can tell you, the thematic potential of sexual repression and mother issues runs far deeper, and despite paying homage to the Master of Suspense in so many other respects — from a tense score that takes its cues from Bernard Herrmann to the vicarious tour of European locales that accompanies the action — Amini chooses to emphasize the story’s male-male bond over anything to do with Colette. Instead of being the film’s point of fixation, she feels like a third wheel, an innocent schoolgirl type caught up in so much men’s business.
Although the result is still far more accomplished than the vast majority of directorial debuts, there’s one other key Hitchcockism that might have boosted it to greatness: If a director wants audiences to identify with characters on the lam, it helps if they are innocent of the crime in question, but guilty of some deeper transgression that might be even more damning. While that’s true of Rydal (an accomplice to the murder but not responsible for it per se, drawn in by his desire to woo Colette away from her husband), the film doesn’t necessarily privilege his point of view.
Instead, Amini prefers to observe this humid menage from the outside, where Danish d.p. Marcel Zyskind (a veteran of the grubby, handheld Dogma 95 school) finally has the chance to indulge his most picturesque impulses. Had “The Two Faces of January” pushed further inside Rydal’s head, however, audiences might have more deeply felt the anxiety of being on the run for someone else’s crimes, coupled with the seismic disappointment that comes in recognizing a father figure’s fallibility.