There are plenty of fictional worlds we all may have dreamed of inhabiting — Middle Earth perhaps, or Hogwarts, or maybe the glamorous New York City of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” To find oneself, however, in the world of Patricia Highsmith, is to most assuredly enter a nightmare. You’re lucky if you manage to wake up, because most of her characters do not.
The first film version of Highsmith’s dark works of fiction was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” in which two strangers exchange each other’s desired murder victims to escape suspicion. As in all of Highsmith’s work, everything works out super great for the very nice people involved.
That film looks like the “Wizard of Oz” compared to 1995’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a fascinating portrait of a nebbish sociopath played by Matt Damon. Like in her most recent journey to the screen, “The Two Faces of January,” what makes these thrillers so compelling is the taut relationship between hatred and desire, which, given Highsmith’s painful biography, seems to be a topic she knew all too well. Her characters do not ascribe to the “If you love something, let it go” school of thought.
“The Two Faces of January” concerns a married American couple abroad in Greece and their misadventures with a fellow American, Rydal, a tour guide and low-level grifter. The cast is magnificent: Kirsten Dunst as the pretty younger wife of Viggo Mortensen, and the fascinating Oscar Isaac as Rydal. Isaac is a riveting performer, who was incredible as the titular character in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and looks every bit the young Al Pacino in this one.
Rydal thinks of himself as a pretty quick study, scamming tourists with his good looks and knowledge of languages, but it’s not long before he gets schooled in manipulation by Chester (Mortensen), a shady financial planner on the run with a suitcase full of cash.
Quickly developing a crush on Dunst, Rydal decides to help the couple escape from the law, but does not realize what he is getting into. Highsmith gives us plenty of psychological background to chew on, like Rydal’s relationship with his recently deceased father. The trio traipses miserably through the dusty ruins of Greece as the stakes get higher and higher. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you that it is not a happy one.
Ripley was Highsmith’s most popular creation, and none of the characters in “The Two faces of January” equal him in fascination. Still, Mortensen is a compelling and disturbing mixture of fatherliness and sinister self-interest, and his jealous control over the two younger characters is quite worth watching. Dunst creates a worthwhile enigma, as we wonder how involved she is with her husband’s misdeeds, and how involved she is with Rydal.
The real star is unquestionably Oscar Isaac, who doesn’t have the major material that he had in “Inside LLewyn Davis,” but who is clearly an actor to watch. Everyone delivers in this superior intellectual thriller, and the setting and time period are flawlessly executed. A worthy entry into the misanthropic Highsmith cannon, “The Two Faces of January” is unsparing in its depiction of amorality.