Like Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Two Faces of January is a movie you want to buy your retro clothes from, maybe wear them at a smoky, dark bar located near some ancient ruins or in the salt air of a seaport. Both movies are full of vintage, mid-20th-century luster but perpetual unease. And both are adapted from novels by Patricia Highsmith, who populated her fictional world with amoral, well-accoutered monsters.
Actually the central couple in January isn’t monstrous, just enterprising in a shady way. It’s 1962 in Athens. In their perfect ivory linen clothing, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his honey-blond wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), soak in the sun at the Acropolis. A handsome young tour guide named Rydal (Oscar Isaac) keeps glancing at them from a distance, a little too often. A career con artist (he has run off to Europe with a lot of American investors’ money), Chester wonders if they’re being followed by the fellow.
Colette has a frisky way of finding out, throwing herself “by accident” in Rydal’s path, chatting him up and finding out he’s a fellow American. Soon, he’s joined them on a double date with a beauty named Lauren (Daisy Bevan). After their dinner, Colette asks her husband what she thinks of the pair. “She’s very sweet,” he says. “I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn.”
The feeling is mutual, and warranted. Rydal himself is a serial opportunist; Lauren is just the latest moneyed beauty he’s courted for his own advancement. Now, Chester starts to worry that the younger man is making a play for his own wife.
As January becomes a roundelay of who’s-scamming-whom, the movie accelerates. When someone from the States enters the picture in search of the married couple, an accident happens. Chester and Claire land in trouble, on the lam and in the debt of Rydal, who witnessed the mishap.
As they travel across the Aegean landscape awaiting new, fake passports to get them out of the country and trouble, the couple have to wonder: Can Rydal be trusted? He speaks Greek. They don’t. That puts them at his mercy in a dance of suspicion, changing partnerships and unfixed choreography. “Truth is, we’re joined at the hip,” Chester admits at one point.
A series of disasters and close calls sends the trio wandering through the rocky lunar landscape of Crete, on foot, under a burning sun and the beating wings of vultures, literally. It’s like a scenic dramatization of the sort of existential dilemmas popularized by Sartre, Camus and Becket from the film’s time period.
Making his feature directing debut, Hossein Amini (whose screenwriting includes fine adaptations of Jude the Obscure and The Wings of the Dove) is good at tightening the noose around his characters. He’s not so good at making us care about them. Our emotional investment never gets very deep. These are attractive scoundrels, but not memorably charming or engagingly flawed. A few specifics in the final moments — a confession, a graveside gesture — clue us in that we’re supposed to be touched by the ending. But that’s one scam the film doesn’t manage to pull off.
The Two Faces of January. With Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst. Directed by Hossein Amini. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.