Patricia Highsmith is a criminally underrated American novelist, probably best known for the film adaptations of her work. Her first book, Strangers on a Train, has been adapted several times (most famously by Alfred Hitchcock), but it’s probably The Talented Mr Ripley for which she is most renowned. It has also been adapted several times, most famously by Anthony Minghella in the movie of the same name, and in René Clément’s Plein Soleil. The Two Faces of January is less ambitious in many ways but Hossein Amini’s film is an enjoyable thriller nonetheless.
Set in the 1960s, Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American working as a tour guide in Athens, stealthily skimming off a bit extra from his clients whilst he decides what to do with his life. He bumps into Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst), a wealthy couple who are travelling round Europe. Chester has something to hide though, and when Chester and Colette are in urgent need of escape, Rydal sees it as a perfect opportunity to make some real money. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that he’s bitten more off than he can chew.
Many of Highsmith’s characters in her novels are morally corrupt, and Chester is no exception. Played beautifully by Mortensen, his slow descent into alcoholism, self-loathing and paranoia is pitch perfect. Whilst Chester is rotten to the core, it’s obvious that Rydal is on the first rung on that ladder. At first he sees Chester as a father figure, then he wants what he has, before the realisation hits that this isn’t the life he wants to lead. Colette is also not as innocent as she looks.
Amini’s film is an entertaining thriller, which grows in tension towards the end. It does have a natural end-point about two-thirds in, and the last section feels oddly out of place; changing the tone and direction of the film. It’s also quite a slim tale, feeling like a novella compared to say The Talented Mr Ripley. However, excellent performances, beautiful locations and a sense of intrigue make it an enjoyable cinema.
The Two Faces of January is out in cinemas now.