The directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove) is a solid one, evoking the Film Noir-influenced styles of Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Minghella. Assuredly, that's no coincidence as the source material for Amini's new film, The Two Faces of January, is a Patricia Highsmith novel, the same author behind Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Like those works, The Two Faces of January pivots on a single act of violence that changes the characters forever. It's a tense thriller set against the romantic backdrop of 1962 Athens, Greece where the shadows creep in amongst the ruins of the people who invented the word "tragedy."
The Two Faces of January, named for the month when Americans Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst) tour Europe, begins with the air of true happiness. The married couple walk arm in arm around The Pantheon and emit the kind of happiness you only see in the movies. But Chester notices a young man staring at him and soon Colette has introduced herself. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide who makes extra money skimming cash from tourists, but Chester sees that right away.
What Rydal sees is something else. He notices Chester because the older man reminds him of his recently deceased father, a Harvard professor who taught Rydal many languages but didn't seem to love him enough. Rydal skipped the funeral and his current lifestyle smacks of rebellion.
Chester is a con man himself, on the run in Europe after swindling an unknown number of people in the States with shoddy investment deals. So when a private eye shows up at his hotel asking questions, Chester freaks out and ends up killing the man. Dragging his body back to the man's room, he encounters Rydal, who reluctantly lends a hand, thinking the man is drunk. The murder intertwines their fate in Hitchcockian style and they lam it, with Colette in tow, up the coast of Greece while a shady friend of Rydal's prepares fake passports for them to get out of the country.
En route, Chester can't help noticing his wife's affection for Rydal and her increasing impatience with his own drinking and incompetence. He's the reason they can't relax and she's growing tired of life on the run. When she discovers the truth behind this latest excursion, the group morphs from a couple and another man to three individuals, each of whom must make their own decisions.
Amini, who eschews any kind of directorial style in favor of naturalistic suspense, proves he's up to the task. The few technical flourishes found within the film are subtle—thunder punctuates a character's surprise—but effective. The sun-splashed beginning of the film is balanced by the shadowy scenes of the second and third acts when the future is entirely up in the air and anything can happen. The marvelous beauty of Greece fades away at night and the ancient streets and alleys become foreboding places where bodies can disappear.
Mortensen is the standout amongst the cast for his snake charmer smile and descent into panic. But Isaac is typically solid in a rightfully restrained performance. Much of the film's tension is between Chester and Rydal as the older man watches his wife become more and more interested in the younger one. Dunst is perfect in the role, exhibiting grace in dealing with her disappointing husband while subtly keeping Rydal at a distance. Throughout the film, it's a wonder which man she'll choose in any given situation.
It's also a wonder where The Two Faces of January is heading once the initial conflict is set. Can the group stay a step ahead of the police as news reports surface and everyone's motives ebb and flow? The psychological aspect of the film is wondering what any of these characters is thinking at any given time. Which lines are true and which are lies? Highsmith's story is given room to evolve naturally by the filmmaker and, although the pace of the narrative lags at times, the central mystery remains tempting. You'll need to know how it ends.