Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is a sloppy swindler, a sloppy drunk and even a sloppy murderer. He and his much younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), wander the ruins of the Acropolis when they catch the eye of Rydal (Oscar Isaac) an American ex-pat with Daddy issues. That their paths would cross is inevitable. The fact that it was written, not in the stars, but via the pen of Patricia Highsmith makes it tragedy.
Highsmith’s novels have been no strangers to the silver screen, as her first novel, Strangers on a Train made for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best pictures. Much like Strangers, The Two Faces of January plays on a shared murder, and like Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a love triangle ratchets up the tension.
Chester is on the run in Greece, trying to evade stateside capture from some of his shady stock dealings. Rydal lives and works in Athens as a tour guide who swindles tourists anyway he can, using his fluency in Greek as his primary weapon. The two of them make up the “Two Faces of January” a reference to the Roman God, Janus, where the name of the month comes from. In Chester, Rydal doesn’t see himself, he sees his father. In Rydal, Chester sees a younger version of himself. In Colette, they both see desire. In Rydal and Chester, Colette sees patronage.
The three come together through an unlikely, albeit Hollywood contrivance, when Rydal returns to Chester and Colette’s hotel room to return a bracelet Colette had left in a taxi. Not a great time to visit as Chester had just finished inadvertently killing a private detective that had tracked him down. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is simply unconscious and they place him in his hotel roof. All three go on the lam in search of foraged passports and safe passage to Crete and eventually Turkey. The longer they travel, the closer the police get, the stickier the situation between Rydal and Colette gets and the more Chester pounds his chest.
Like many Highsmith novels, January is best when the two male characters start to see their own reflection in the other’s eyes. Unfortunately, January is at it’s worse when it requires Dunst to be anything other than a cardboard cutout. Not that Colette is a particularly compelling character; she exists mainly so the male characters have something to fight over. This might be due to Dunst’s limited acting range, or to streamline the story and keep Chester and Rydal at odds with one another.
The Two Faces of January is the first outing to the director’s chair for screenwriter, Hossein Amini and he handles the material deftly. With the exception of one on-the-nose scene between Chester and Rydal late in the movie, January is paced perfectly with all of the charm of older Hitchcock movies. The comparison is a difficult one to sidestep considering the subject matter, and Amini is no threat to The Master of Suspense’s throne, but Amini manages to invoke Hitch’s tone in just the right way.