The novels of Patricia Highsmith, sardonic tales of psychological suspense, disturbing amorality and claustrophobic chill, have lent themselves to many film adaptations. Among them her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” adapted three times but most memorably by the late Anthony Minghella in 1999.
“The Two Faces of January” is among her more obscure novels, rejected even by her publisher at one point, with the complaint that “a story can handle two neurotic characters but not three.” But it got under the skin of top screenwriter Hossein Amini (“Jude,” “Drive”), who not only adapted the story but has chosen it for his directing debut.
A fine cast — Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac — plus picturesque locales in Athens, Crete and Istanbul make a very attractive package for a very unsavory tale of duplicity, human weakness, jealousy, rage and murder.
The movie does make you understand how Highsmith’s story got under Amini’s skin though because the movie does that as well. It is a creepy tale about unheroic characters with defiant flaws. Yet an hypnotic allure and uneasy foreboding permeate every frame.
The film opens in 1962 Athens, at the picture-postcard Acropolis where tourists flock. Rydal (Isaac), a dangerously handsome American expat living in Greece, gives tours to excited college girls — it’s a toss-up whether the Parthenon or Rydal’s good looks are causing that excitement — even as he cons them out of their parents’ money.
An equally handsome couple catches his eye, a free-spending but wary, shrewd American businessman, Chester McFarland (Mortensen), and his much younger and very attractive wife Colette (Dunst). Chester notices the glances between his wife and the youth but lets her hire him for their sightseeing.
Rydal tells the couple he’s a Yale grad bumming around Europe thanks to the many languages his estranged late father taught him. Chester says he’s an investment banker. Neither may be telling the truth; certainly neither appears trustworthy.
Now come a couple of plot contrivances, one acceptable and the other not. After dining with the couple, a bracelet left behind in a taxi causes Rydal to return to their hotel just in time to catch Chester dragging an unconscious man down the hall.
The unconscious guy, a tough detective (David Warshofsky), has been hired by the mob to track Chester down and take back money Chester defrauded from them when he sold a phony investment. The PI pulls a gun, a struggle ensues in the hotel bathroom and the PI falls down, hitting his head.
Rydal is forced to help Chester with the body, unaware the man is dead and of the trouble he’s getting into. Chester and Colette hastily flee the hotel but, in a puzzling development that casts a shadow over everything that subsequently happens, don’t bother to check out and retrieve their passports.
So unable to depart from Greece, the couple needs new passports and must get out of Athens before the body gets discovered. Sensing easy money to be made, Rydal takes them to a passport forger, then whisks them off into hiding on the island of Crete where conflicts and jealousies among this trio bloom into malevolent warfare.
Chester goes into meltdown, unable to sleep in a hotel without his passport — a requirement for foreign nationals in those days — livid about the clear attraction between Rydal and his wife and drinking heavily. With a suitcase filled with ill-gotten money never leaving his side and the veneer of civilization wearing off fast, he’s a picture of irrational despair.
Upon realizing how joined at the hip he is with these two thieves, one now a murderer, Rydal struggles to maintain calm while Colette grows increasingly angry at her husband. She too didn’t realize Chester had killed the detective.
Things only get worse with a long bus ride into the hot interior and police on the lookout for two Americans on the lam. The high-stakes business winds up in a chase scene in nighttime Istanbul.
Highsmith often favored a kind of duality of opposites in her stories, the two men “switching” murders in “Strangers on a Train,” or Ripley assuming the identity of Dickie whom he murdered in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
In “Two Faces,” she makes two unstable con men equally dependent on each other. Yet each thoroughly distrusts his secret sharer — and with good reason. The duality between Chester and Rydal, reflected in the title, is that of fates and personalities intertwined. What Chester now is, Rydal will soon enough become.
Mortensen neatly calibrates the meltdown of the fraudster, who suddenly is running from a murder he had no intention of committing. Behaving badly under stress, his every decision is a poor one.
Less reactive than he apparently is in the novel (which I have not read), the more Isaac’s Rydal struggles to free himself from the duality he shares with Chester the more he becomes entangled.
Like “Strangers,” with its theme of an exchange of guilt, Chester’s murder becomes his and soon enough they will share in another death.
The weak link here is Dunst’s Colette. The film never makes clear how much she returns Rydal’s sexual advances, mild as they are, nor does Dunst seem like a third neurotic character. While aware of her husband’s fraud, she’s kept in the dark about their mutual fate for perhaps too long and her reaction is understandable rather than neurotic.
She’s more of an enigma than an actor in the unfolding tragic events. Mostly the actress appears lost, not knowing exactly what she is meant to play.
Without hitting the period cars and props too hard, Amini establishes a strong sense of Europe in the early ‘60s. He was able to shoot inside the Parthenon and got access to the fabulous Crete ruins at Knossos, the Bronze Age Minoan city that gave birth to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
(Interiors of Knossos and the Grand Hotel in Athens were recreated at Ealing Studios outside London.)
The film looks and sounds like the makers were going for a “Ripley” vibe. Tom Sternberg, who produced the 1999 film, takes on that role here and Max Minghella, son of its late director, is on board as exec producer.
Spanish composer Alberto Iglesia’s score goes for the same lushness and once again Mediterranean locations and sun light produce their magic. But the story doesn’t pack the same punch.
Rydal is no Ripley — he lacks the pathological malice covered up by preppy charm — and Chester is too pathetic in the long run although both the movie and Highsmith’s story do redeem him at the end.
The story with its flawed plotting and somewhat erratic characters doesn’t grip you the same way “Ripley” did. Nevertheless it’s Highsmith and many who enjoy her irrational world should definitely catch this film.
Opens: September 26, 2014 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: Working Title Films, Timnick Films, StudioCanal
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky
Director/screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Based on the novel by: Patricia Highsmith
Producers: Robyn Slovo, Tom Sternberg, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Tim Bricknell, Ron Halpern, Max Minghella
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Costumes: Steven Noble
Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Jon Harris
PG-13 rating, 98 minutes