From the opening notes of Alberto Iglesias’ gorgeously panicked and portentous score, it’s clear exactly what kind of film The Two Faces of January is going to be. Racing piano scales, mournful strings, and a horn section that grumbles like the hollowed stomach of someone whose guilty conscience is metastasizing into murder—it’s the sound of someone cracking the spine of an old Patricia Highsmith novel, the pages stained with black coffee and buried secrets.
For better or worse, this is a Highsmith adaptation to the bitter end. Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial debut does less to disguise itself than any of its fugitive characters. Published in 1964, The Two Faces of January is a slender and somewhat obscure footnote in Highsmith’s body of work, and Amini’s film has no interest in pretending otherwise—if The Talented Mr. Ripley was a fat cigar, The Two Faces of January is a tightly rolled cigarillo, the kind of thing you smoke on holiday while overlooking the ocean from your hotel balcony.
The rare psychological thriller that actually earns the distinction, the story begins at the top of the Parthenon on a dusty 1962 afternoon as an underachieving ex-pat from Brooklyn makes eye contact with a beautiful American blonde who happens to be married. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is a ruggedly handsome Ivy League graduate who absconded to Europe after falling out with his late father and now uses his smarts to scam tourists for a few drachmas at a time. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his much younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), are his latest marks, a glamorous pair of rubes who are stepping through Athens as part of their European vacation.
Of course, this being a Highsmith adaptation, the MacFarlands aren’t actually on vacation, and that briefcase Chester doesn’t let out of his sight isn’t exactly filled with souvenirs for his friends back home. It’s all ouzo and furtive looks until Chester accidentally kills a private detective, lies to his wife about it, and enlists the smitten Rydal to help him hide the body. Just like that, their fates are forever intertwined, the trio bouncing around the Greek isles as they try to elude the cops and survive each other.
Amini, who received an Oscar nomination for adapting 1998’s Wings of a Dove, has described Highsmith’s novel as “loosely plotted and often illogical," but his film, to its frequent detriment, is neither of those things. Moving through the motions like the police is hot on its tail, The Two Faces of January is a spring-loaded 98 minutes, a Greek tragedy stuck in the body of a lithe and lurid dime-store melodrama. And it’s a beautiful thing to look at, thanks to Marcel Zyskind’s lush cinematography and Steven Noble’s exquisite costume design.
The characterizations (of the men) vibrate with hidden anxieties and violence, compelling the story to move faster than it should. Mortensen is excellent as a man who begins to unravel when confronted with his weakness, a reluctant villain running out of the rope he’s using to hang himself. On the other end, Isaac effectively channels his Inside Llewyn Davis character as a bitter but arguably well-intentioned kid with more potential than he knows what to do with, the actor selling Rydal’s daddy issues with a few sideways glances and making his perverse father/son bond with Chester into the film’s most compelling relationship.
Colette is caught in the middle, alternately reduced to a trophy and a bargaining chip like so many of Highsmith’s female characters. Dunst approaches the role with a helpful clarity of purpose. She prevents Colette from becoming a mere lust object for Rydal. The actress seems to understand that Rydal’s attraction to her is both underwritten and uninteresting, and in the scenes in which her character is literally between the two con artists vying for her affection, Dunst wisely focuses less on falling in love with Rydal than she does falling out of love with Chester. Amini doesn’t give the arc the time it deserve, but that dynamic nevertheless speaks to the film’s obsession with beginnings and endings, the title referring to Janus, the god of transitions, who has a head on each side of his neck—one staring into the future, the other into the past (cinephiles will be familiar with the image thanks to the logo of a certain production company).
To that end, The Two Faces of January only really takes flight when it disabuses itself of the idea that it’s an erotic thriller. Instead, it's about the conflict between Chester and Rydal, the story increasingly seized by the classical trope that the son has to kill the father in order to become a man. Amini’s film may wait too long to show its cards, but in its refusal to let Chester and Rydal see each other as villains, this familiar bit of beach-chair entertainment is a satisfying reminder that all life may end in defeat, but not every death has to be a tragedy.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.