Somewhat mysteriously, the title of “The Two Faces of January” is never explained in the crisp, minor, sometimes intensely pleasing psychological thriller that comes attached to it. You might be better off calling the movie “The Two Faces of Tom Ripley” — the casual moviegoer will be reminded of that film starring Matt Damon a decade or so back, while fans of Patricia Highsmith’s coolly amoral fiction will get the tingles.
Highsmith wrote “The Two Faces of January” in 1964, between 1955’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and the first of its four sequels, 1970’s “Ripley Underground.” In a very real sense, the dueling antiheroes of “January” are stand-ins for young Tom and his older self, each sizing up the other and wondering what he can get away with.
For one thing, they’re both Americans running from shady pasts and landing, reinvented, in early-1960s Athens. The 20-something Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac) is burning through family money, leading American tourists to the Parthenon and seducing the pretty ones. Back home there’s a disapproving father whose recent death has freed Rydal to be as amoral as he pleases.
At first, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) seems an easy mark: a hearty Midwestern businessmen in a vanilla suit, towing a younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). But you see the glimmer of approval in Chester’s eyes as he watches Rydal pull off a small con in a crowded marketplace, and you catch the admiration in the younger man’s gaze as he contemplates a hipper version of his father. There’s Freud in the cocktails, even before Chester’s stateside misdeeds catch up with him and Rydal has to help dispose of an inconvenient body.
This is an unusual role for Mortensen, but after you’ve played a thinking woman’s hunk so long and so well, what else is there? Chester is a one-time alpha dog who’s getting a little slow, a touch flabby, and you sense Isaac’s Rydal watching the older man with deceptively innocent eyes, waiting for the moment to make his move. There’s Chester’s suitcase full of money, and there’s Colette, whom Dunst plays with a sweet cleverness that’s not the same thing as smart. Isaac, working in closer emotional quarters than “Inside Llewyn Davis,” keeps us guessing as to his character’s ethics and endgame. Implicated in Chester’s crimes, Rydal may (or may not) have a few of his own up his sleeve.
Who is each man, really, and who does he want to be? What’s he willing to do to become that person? Those are questions that bedevil all of Highsmith’s characters (except maybe Bruno in “Strangers on a Train,” who always knew he was a killer). “The Two Faces of January” turns into a more parched, elemental drama after Rydal ferries the three to Crete, promising fresh passports and anonymity from the authorities. There’s an undercurrent of Paul Bowles’s spiritual malaise to their wanderings amid the tombs, and more than a dab of “The Third Man” in the climactic Istanbul chase, with its shadows bouncing off alleyways and a fleeing man trapped in a maze of streets.
In between is a scene of nearly perfect tension, set at a passport checkpoint in which our two Toms, Chester and Rydal, are forced by circumstance to assume the father-son bond they both crave and dread. The first feature directed by Hossein Amini, who wrote the scripts for “Drive” and “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “The Two Faces of January” doesn’t aspire to much more than being a movable character study. It’s an able, literate debut nevertheless, above all alert to the shifting power games that can define two men a generation apart. The movie never reaches a boil. Instead, it simmers and simmers until you’re suddenly shocked at the hot water you’re in.