The Two Faces of January
A nicely sustained, old-school thriller starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac
Almost 20 years after her death, Patricia Highsmith's work continues to be a rich source of inspiration for contemporary filmmakers. Todd Haynes is currently filming Carol with Cate Blanchett, and now screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove) makes an impressive directorial debut with his elegant adaptation of The Two Faces of January.
Set in the sun-kissed ruins of 1962 Athens, it has the feel of something that Hitchcock might have made at the time, a feeling reinforced by a lush, Bernard Herrmann-style score from Alberto Iglesias. The film looks beautiful with the weather mirroring the story’s mood as it shifts from carefree to tragic. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an exiled American scamming gullible tourists as an obliging local guide and finds himself immediately drawn to the rich pickings of well-heeled American traveller Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst).
But Chester is not the respectable figure he projects to the world and seems to recognise a kindred spirit in the shady Rydal: ‘I wouldn't trust him to mow my lawn’, he observes with something nudging admiration. When Chester's past catches up with him, Rydal becomes both bystander and accomplice in a frantic flight from justice.
A nicely sustained, old-school thriller, The Two Faces of January has the moral complexity that remains a Highsmith trademark. As Rydal becomes trapped in a hell of his own making, the ruthless Chester stumbles towards an unexpected redemption in a film that allows them to make seesawing claims on our sympathies. Neither one can fully take the moral high ground and yet ultimately their cases both have some merit. It all makes for a thriller that balances urgent storytelling with ethical dilemmas. Now, if only someone would make a proper version of Highsmith's masterful Edith's Diary.
General release from Fri 16 May.