For his directing debut, screenwriter Hossein Amini (“The Wings of a Dove,” “Drive”) tackles a lesser-known Patricia Highsmith work, “The Two Faces of January.” Eliciting fine performances from his cast – Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, Amini presents an adult suspense thriller set in Greece and Istanbul of 1962.
As with many of Highsmith’s characters, the three leads are all complicated people with questionable pasts. Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his wife, Colette (Dunst) are Americans traveling through Greece. Good looking and smartly dressed, the duo ooze wealth, something that Rydal (Isaac), an American born, Greek tour guide immediately spots. Rydal charms all the ladies, while sweetly conning them out of cash. The MacFarlands make interesting marks; plus Chester reminds Rydal of his own recently deceased father.
After accepting an invitation to dinner, Rydal becomes friendly with the couple. Or perhaps he is infatuated with Colette. But when a past regression of Chester’s causes an unwanted accident, all three are unwittingly linked. As desperation deepens over the event, personal alliances shift, jealousies and paranoia grow between all three as they travel to Crete and then to Istanbul.
Patricia Highsmith is known for smoldering suspense and creating duality within characters – think of “Strangers on a Train” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Here the title even serves as reference, January was named after the Roman God Janus, known for beginnings and transitions. Janus is often shown with two faces – one looking to the future, and one looking to the past. With Chester and Rydal, such dual themes of past and future, as well as father figures and sons, play throughout their journey.
Amini matches the material well, which he has said obsessed him since he first read the 1964 book in university. Even against the bright, hot landscapes of Athens and Crete, Amini tonally directs the film as a stylized film noir. (Interestingly, the film was shot digitally due to limited production days, but cinematographer Marcel Zyskind used anamorphic lenses to give a “softer, more classic-appearing image,” notes Amini in the film’s production notes.)
Also of note is the Alberto Iglesias’s score. Long associated with the films of Pedro Almodovar, Iglesias is known for big orchestral scores — giving the film that Hitchcock – Bernard Herrmann quality.
The directing, cast, and tech credits are all excellent, and even a lesser Patricia Highsmith narrative is still better than most films filling the multiplexes today. Highsmith’s characters, although flawed and not entirely likable, are certainly interesting, and it’s a thrilling puzzle to follow to see just what happens in the end. Equally dazzling are the locations, costumes, and set design.
Thus, looking to the past, Amini takes us on a taut, suspenseful trip in “The Two Faces of January.”
“The Two Faces of January” is 98 minutes and Rated PG-13, and opens September 26 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal Theatre.