Con artist Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his glamorous wife (Kirsten Dunst) try to flee their holiday destination in Greece with a random stranger. One of them has been linked to the murder of a police officer and trying to frame the other for the crime.

 

3.5
A high quality Highsmith adaptation.

No one made the practical necessity of murder more practical and more necessary than Patricia Highsmith. She had competition, but to her fans, Highsmith, who died in 1995, bore a gift that eclipsed even the best. Her métier – psychological thrillers that crawl through a subterranean world of sociopathic impulses and emotional claustrophobia – were hardly unknown when she began publishing in 1950 with Strangers on a Train. Still, Highsmith had more than an elegant dread in her spunky prose or tricky plots of menace shot through with bursts of violence. No less a figure than Graham Greene was a great admirer. He identified the source of unease that creeps through her finest work as a refusal to embrace ‘moral endings’. Here, he said, “nothing is certain once we cross this frontier.”

That kind of disquiet is unique in a cinema so driven to soothe and affirm. It hasn’t stopped a whole lot of filmmakers from getting their hands dirty on Highsmith. Her most famous creation, Tom Ripley, introduced in 1955 in The Talented Mr. Ripley, spawned some fine work: Wim Wenders’ sublime The American Friend (1977), René Clément’s brilliant Plein Soleil (1960) and Anthony Minghella’s good 1999 adaptation with Matt Damon and Jude Law. Still, there’s a feeling that even at their best, these movies – and others, including Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on a Train (1951) – come off a little squeaky, scrubbed clean of Highsmith’s gleeful disdain for victims who had it coming and the urge to cheer on desperate murderers…

That is, Highsmith is bloody hard to adapt in the sense of fidelity to a peculiar vision, its queasy passions and dark wit. Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January, which comes from Highsmith’s 1962 novel, doesn’t need any special pleading. As a movie, Amini’s first, it’s better than pretty good; it has cross and double cross, great suspense, more than one surprise and a sumptuous look that reeks of privilege and masks a cruel deceit. The cinematography by Marcel Zyskind drenches the widescreen tourist porn in black and gold fear; the ancient cluster of Mediterranean streets offers no place to hide. As a version of Highsmith, Amini seems a close reader. He appears drawn to what’s best and deliciously unwholesome in her work: the rivalry of doppelgängers, status envy, reckless competition and the dead hand of fate that rules an indifferent world and reassures her charming and lethal protagonists. Still, the film has a sweet conviction in a kind of goodness that I for one don’t believe the author would ever accept. It doesn’t strike hard or go too deep, but at least it’s exciting.

The set-up is just great. This is Greece in the early ‘60s and the Parthenon is the perfect attraction for a hustle. Rydal (Oscar Issac) is a handsome expat Yank, a predator who hides behind his job as tourist guide. He is expert at appearing untouched by the heat of the sun and anything like a conscience; flirting, scoring and convincing all he is a friendly local. One day, he finds himself drawn to a couple, who turn out to be married, American and wealthy. (Well, this is Highsmith and appearances mean everything and nothing.) The man is Chester (Viggo Mortensen). He has the chiseled surety of the transatlantic businessman, but the white suit is a give away; he’s dodgy as. The woman is Colette (Kirsten Dunst), Chester’s wife. She is half his age, as easy and confident as Chester is suspicious and snarky. The allure for Rydal is not only the missus, and a con job, but Chester’s uncanny resemblance to his Dad; a man he loved, loathed, feared and envied. Rydal elects himself as Chester and Collette’s private guide; there’s the temptation of sex here and its inevitable fallout of jealousy and rage. Still, things don’t come apart in quite the predictable way. Chester and Collette, it turns out, are on the run. There’s a murder, of the necessary kind. Rydal is implicated as an alibi or witness (take your pick). He is recruited by the now fugitives and so must engineer an escape for Chester and Collette.

Thus, the grifter gets scammed and the film takes the form of the classic pursuit thriller, with Rydal a trapped rat for a hero. Yet, there’s something richer here than the incidental pleasures of the close-call, the chase and the shoot-out. It’s the idea of toxic co-dependency – essential Highsmith – where two of a kind, Chester and Rydal, and their amoral nature is only truly recognisable to the other. As if they were some odd species, with their own secret code decipherable to themselves.

Amini, who wrote Jude (1996), and Drive (2011), gets the movie moving quickly, laying out the intricacies of the plot cleanly and economically and even in the film’s sluggish middle, Two Faces has a tingling grip. He’s good with actors. Mortensen provides the film with a ferocious energy. His explosions of temper fueled by grog and sweat are frightening. I was kept guessing as to just how crooked he really was or pretended to be. Dunst is fine but the character is a casualty of a yarn that sees her as a prize. Her larceny runs only so deep. In a way, it’s Issac’s film. It’s a fascinating push/pull, a mix of Oedipal neurosis and stupid self-serving gallantry. We feel his dread of both Chester and his own terrible impulse of ruthless need.

Still, I can’t quite decide what I like best: the action – there’s one bit at an airport where the camera stalks Rydal like it’s ready to pounce which is one of the best things of its kind I’ve seen in ages – or the many quiet moments, where Amini lets the plot loosen to the point where it stops dead. Here, the mood of unease settles in like a bad hangover; the kind that takes hold after a big night when the shame of misdeeds and the rationalisations rise and collide in uneasy alliance.