Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, The Two Faces of January is by no means great art; it never explodes the way a slick tale of larceny, lust, and blackmail should. But Hossein Amini’s directorial debut — he wrote the bloodier, pulpier Ryan Gosling thriller Drive — is stewing and scenic, unfolding amid the islands and catacombs of Crete and Athens, and loaded with the usual film-noir delights: fedoras, lipstick-stained highballs, and bare-knuckled fistfights.
Rydal (Inside Llewyn Davis‘s Oscar Isaac, more sedated here) is a calculating American tour guide who likes to grift Parthenon visitors out of money. Captivated by tourist Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an unscrupulous businessman, and his trophy wife Colette (a game Kirsten Dunst), he volunteers to chaperone them about town, figuring he’ll just scam Chester out of some cash and move on.
But he unwittingly ends up an accomplice to Chester’s accidental murder of a private detective. As Rydal grows more smitten with Colette, the trio’s attempts to flee back to America are thwarted by mounting jealousy, paranoia, and alcohol-spurred violence. Mortensen is a pro at the slow burn, and he adds genuinely frightening layers of impulsiveness to this tempest-in-a-teapot scenario. The freshest twist is that each man has a notable advantage over the other.
Rydal, unlike Chester, speaks fluent Greek and has a chain of local accomplices; Chester, however, is so innately mistrusting he can easily smell a rat, and his punch can leave antagonists knocked out for hours, or dead. Amini’s major misstep is in overemphasizing Chester and Rydal’s supposed father-son dynamic; it simply doesn’t come off. But January is still a well-acted, tense little thriller.