Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Two Faces of January

Screenwriter Hossein Amini, whose “Drive” made my top-ten list in 2011, debuts as a director with the Patricia Highsmith adaptation “The Two Faces of January.”

If you hear the name Highsmith and expect “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” you’re in for a letdown; “January” is minor Highsmith indeed, with little of the intellectual and psychological layering and intricate plotting that made that film so enjoyable.

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star as Chester and Colette MacFarland, rich Americans on holiday in Athens. At the Acropolis, they meet a tour guide and petty scammer named Rydal (Oscar Isaac), sharing a pleasant if stilted dinner with Rydal and his date, one of the pretty tour girls eager for a vacation fling with a dashing Greek. Back at their hotel room, a stranger knocks on the MacFarlands’ door, insisting his way in. He’s a private dick for some very unhappy clients Chester swindled back home, and he’s come to collect. A scuffle ensues and the tec dies. Rydal, who’d come back to the hotel to return the bracelet Colette left in their taxi, sees Chester carrying the limp body, and Chester, claiming the man is just drunk (“dead drunk,” as Lesley Ann Warren added in “Clue”), asks Rydal to help him. Thus do Rydal and Colette become accessories after the fact to a murder splashed across European headlines, and the three wary and tentative new friends set out under cover for Istanbul, where one or more of them will die.

Amini offers few surprises or thrills; his movie’s all atmosphere. He adverts to erotically potent cuckolding themes but allows them to evanesce, perhaps carried off by the Anemoi. Still, what a beautiful and exotic atmosphere it is, exquisitely captured by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and set to a Hitchcokian Alberto Iglesias score that’s probably the year’s best (rivalled only by Ennio Morricone’s for “The Best Offer”). Of the leads, Mortensen fares least well, making an especially unconvincing drunk and hindered, as are all three, by portentous dialogue that produced a few derisive snickers among my audience. I found myself bored during long stretches of “The Two Faces of January,” and at just 97 minutes, that’s simply unacceptable.