The Two Faces of January is that kind of film. Varnished with the gloss of a high-toned thriller, teasing us with a serpentine plot that implies it will turn around to bite all its characters on the ass, it turns out to be a mildly diverting, ultimately simplistic bauble. One in which none of the more tantalizing story possibilities ever comes to pass.
The film is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, whose book The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted into one of the best, most delectably entertaining films of the ‘90s, with a high wattage cast including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Two Faces of January appears to be an attempt to re-bottle that same lightning.
Mortensen plays a businessman on holiday in Greece with his wife (an under-realized performance from Kirsten Dunst who, in her defense, is not given enough to do). It’s the early ‘60s, the traveling attire is sharp and fashionable, the air is abuzz with brilliant blue sky and sparkling sun and the lovely couple is a ripe, rich mark for the attractive grifter played by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis).
Oscar is an American, a Yale graduate and a tour guide, who speaks several languages and has a moneyed pedigree that comes with daddy issues. He makes nice with Mortensen and Dunst, is quickly enlisted as their personal guide and just as quickly becomes entangled in Mortensen’s felonious affairs.
At this point the movie is alive with potential snares, intriguing red herrings, delicious double-crosses. Isaac is an electric presence. He reminds me of a young Al Pacino, all tense intelligence and seething impatience. He manages to skim some drachmas from the unwitting Mortensen for his friends who work in the market stalls, while at the same time falling for both Dunst’s admiring eyes and her husband’s fatherly gaze.
When Oscar decides to help the couple escape the country, you keep wondering if there are other motives at play. The movie seems to be setting up multiple choices: Is Isaac running a scam or does he truly think of Mortensen as a surrogate father figure? Is Mortensen running an even more elaborate con, or is he really as gullible as he seems? Better yet, could both be in cahoots to bump off Dunst?
Alas, the answer is none of the above. In fact, the movie becomes increasingly flat-footed, tripping over a couple of clumsy accidental deaths and stumbling through a routine cops-and-robbers climax before face-planting into a sappy finish.
As the urgency drains out of the picture, Mortensen keeps reinventing his character. One minute he’s a jealous drunk, the next he’s a bookish drip; look again and he’s a remorseful husband or maybe just a glamorous failure. Thanks to his performance, and the film’s indecisive rhythms, what began as a ripping, Ripley-esque yarn turns out to be the movie equivalent of a tourist trap. Alluring but empty.
Photo of Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst courtesy of reellifewithjane.com. This review first appeared in The Restless Critic blog.