Rydel (Oscar Isaac) is an American working as a tour guide in Greece in 1962. Rydel has carved out a life for himself running tours and running cons on tourists, but all of this changes when he becomes fascinated with Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband Chester (Viggo Mortensen). After the three share a drink, it is not long before Rydel is drafted in to help Chester move to body of a PI, and the relationship between the three becomes stronger, and utterly complicated.
It is easy to say that The Two Faces of January feels ‘Highsmithian’, given the tonal, story and character similarities to The Talented Mr Ripley. As well as this, given that Chester has recently run off with cash earned through fraud, the story feels particularly apt and ready for adaptation.
Director Hossein Amini is a name known to many as a screenwriter – having films such as Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman to his name – but this is his first turn as director, and he does admirably. The chemistry between the three leads – Dunst, Mortensen and Isaac – is strong, and is allowed to ebb and flow, based on Dunst’s performance and her character’s feelings. Mortensen does a great job of playing a charming man whose past catches up to him and causes him to unravel, Isaac plays the charismatic con man with flair and Dunst seems to have outgrown her whingy characters of the past, making Colette a warm and engaging character, whose fears and rationalisations feel completely justified.
The story is a fairly standard love triangle thriller, and while it is dialogue heavy, it is never dense or inaccessible. The trouble arises, however, through a sense that the story is dragging its heels for the sake of building tension, and several twists and turns leave the film meandering at times. Amini makes the film atmospheric and beautiful, but it does feel, from time to time, that we are treading ground that is all too familiar, even though there is plenty to enjoy here. That said however, Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography makes great use of the beauty of Greece, and adds to the atmosphere of oppression and tension built up through the film.
The Two Faces of January is a perfectly enjoyable thriller but, with so many other writers inspired by Highsmith and a familiarity with The Talented Mr Ripley, there are times when it feels as though we have been here many times before. Mortensen, Isaac and Dunst shine, and this is a strong debut from Amini as a director, but does demonstrate that the director still has some learning to do.