It’s always a nice surprise when a film panned by critics turns out to be quite enjoyable. Such is Hossein Amini’s “The Two Faces of January,” both a crisp thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith novel and a period piece set in Athens and Crete in the sixties. The story is that of a wealthy American couple taking in the sights, people dull enough until we realize that Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is a con artist trying to escape a tricky situation that could turn dangerous. Looking for a way out, he makes a big mistake. But a tour guide, Rydal (Oscar Isaac) he and his wife (Kirsten Dunst) have befriended witnesses, a regrettable action that gives him the fodder he needs to play the couple for all they’re worth. Sexual tension is added to the mix as Rydal can’t help being attracted to the pretty American woman, much younger than her swindler husband whose activities she gradually discovers.
This is great Patricia Highsmith territory. Someone should take the time to sit down and count the number of unforgettable movies based on her novels, including Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”). The lovely Greek setting of “Faces” is as lethal as the French Riviera in another Highsmith thriller, “the Talented Mr. Ripley,” originally the fabulous 1960 René Clément “Plein Soleil” with Alain Delon at the zenith of youth and beauty. Here too, con artists vie in conning each other in a dangerous game that can only end badly. Here too, the bright sun manages for a while to hide a number of sins.
The nostalgia is worked in through Kirsten Dunst’s Doris Day impersonation and Viggo Mortensen’s weird hairstyle, and stressed through cigarettes smoked nonstop by all protagonists. The narrative is well paced, surprises keep coming, some shocking enough to make the audience gasp, and everything wraps up nicely. Hossein Amini may not go down in film history as an innovator, at least not on the strength of this film, but he knows his craft well and that’s all we need for this sunny escapade where even mayhem and accidents don’t spoil the mood.