Machiavellian machinations behind an elegant facade
Like Agatha Christie before her, Patricia Highsmith repeatedly challenged the moral compass of her readers with disturbing psychological thrillers that nudged her characters to the brink of madness.
The Two Faces Of January indulges in obsession-fuelled skulduggery albeit against a vivid backdrop of sun-baked 1960s Athens.
Hossein Amini's slow-burning film version conceals its Machiavellian machinations behind an elegant facade of impeccable period costumes and picturesque cinematography.
Yet, while this assured directorial debut is sweeping in scope, the focus of Amini's lean script is the characters' strained relationships and notably the frayed bonds of trust between two men, who must rely on each other to escape a hairy predicament of their own making.
The film opens at the Acropolis where American businessman Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) cut elegant figures on the steps of the citadel.
Greek-speaking guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who scams unsuspecting tourists out of hard-earned drachmas, is drawn to the glamorous couple and he gladly accepts their invitation to dinner.At the end of the night, as he makes his way home, Rydal discovers Colette has mislaid a possession on the back seat of the taxi so he asks the driver to make a detour to the MacFarlands' exclusive hotel.
Unexpectedly, Rydal walks in on Chester moving the seemingly unconscious body of a man (David Warshofsky) into another room. The businessman explains that he was protecting his wife.
Blinded by his infatuation with Colette, Rydal pledges his help and suggests a means to obtain fake passports and escape the country. As the trio heads for the coast, the police give chase.
Shot on location in Greece and Turkey, The Two Faces Of January nods appreciatively to both Highsmith and Hitchcock, ratcheting up tension as the two men trade verbal blows in order to secure Colette's divided affections.
Mortensen and Isaac relish these fractious exchanges, creating a twisted father-son dynamic with Oedipal yearnings for Dunst's third wheel.
Her role feels slightly undernourished but she's pivotal to the on-screen chicanery and the film's centrepiece sequence in subterranean gloom.
Because it's under the comforting cloak of darkness that men's ugly, true natures are revealed.