Crime novelist Patricia Highsmith is responsible for some of the brilliant most thrillers of the twentieth century. Her books typically involve handsome bespoke Americans in exotic European locales, with money as a catalyst to explore the uglier sides of human behavior. The most famous adaptation of her work, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is fascinating because the anti-hero squirms out of one trap after another. The Two Faces of January, the latest Highsmith adaptation from writer/director Hossein Amini, emphasizes psychology over plot. Sometimes there is suspense, particularly when we try and second guess what the characters will do next, but the predictable twists overshadow their careful development.
Our hero is Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an educated young American who works as a translator and tour guide in 1962 Athens. He’s hiding from family obligations, and makes extra bucks by conning unsuspecting tourists out of their money. When he meets Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst), Rydal easily colludes with street vendors to steal hundreds from them. Rydal is not an evil man – he’s probably the sort of guy who thinks it’s a sin to let a sucker keep his money – so when Colette leaves her new bracelet in their cab, he sincerely wants to return the object to its owner.
By the time Rydal reaches their floor with the bracelet in tow, Chester is dragging a body from room to another. Chester claims the man is drunk, except we already know that a) the man is dead and b) he’s a private detective chasing after Chester. Rydal sticks with the couple for some extra cash, and the stakes grow as he becomes an accomplice to the murder. Rather than face mutually assured destruction, the unlikely partners help each other out.
After writing the screenplays for films as diverse as Drive and The Wings of the Dove, Amini demonstrates considerable patience as a director. While a sense of doom is inevitable, he lets the details build slowly, so that we forget that Rydal began the film with (somewhat) noble intentions. There are long scenes where the three Americans talk in isolation, and we learn more about them: Chester is a scoundrel and a drunk, the sort of man who thinks another round is the solution to every problem. In a thankless role, Dunst’s Colette is a familiar Highsmith archetype: the easy-going spouse who is smarter and perhaps more culpable than she lets on. With small private moments, the audience understands the characters before they understand each other, so the best scenes create suspense over whether they’ll figure the other out.
The less successful moments are when the three Americans deal with external threats. Rydal speaks Greek while his companions do not, so he’s quick to understand the severity of their situation. Amini heightens the drama by letting Rydal withhold information, but all the tension deflates once they’re all on the same page. Colette is unwilling to deal with the practical ramifications of the murder, and without the any street smarts, either, Amini/Highsmith must dispatch her in an annoying, perfunctory way. In the long scene where they finally turn on each other, Amini’s direction attempts suspense through careful editing. His no-frills approach is elegant, the sort of thing we’d expect from a costume drama, but does not work as a thriller. His strength is a writer, which is part of the reason why the last half hour is the most rich.
The Two Faces of January is a moderately successful two-character movie – Amini has some fun with a triangle of slow-burn sexual tension – although Isaac and Mortensen are well-suited rivals. Rydal and Chester have their strengths (cultural knowledge versus pure malevolence, respectively). Amini forces an uneasy balance between hatred and necessity. Like the best Highsmith rivalries, their relationship is complex because it combines anger with respect, deception with collusion, and an increasingly-intricate web of lies. Highsmith and Amini know that only character will make out of Europe alive, and since we know the outcome before they do, it’s quietly satisfying to see who can think the fastest, and how.