In the studio era, when he would have flourished, Viggo Mortensen’s shorthand description might have been “dashing but dangerous; cultivated veneer hides mysterious, checkered past.” Ergo screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial debut finds Mortensen perfectly cast in the Joseph Cotten–ish role of Chester MacFarland, an urbane American touring Greece with his glamorous wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), perhaps less to see the ruins than to avoid joining their ranks. Fellow expat Rydal (clean-shaven Oscar Isaac) helps Chester out of a bind and offers to expedite the couple’s escape. What follows, unsurprisingly since Patricia Highsmith wrote the source novel, is a slow-boil suspenser whose true subjects are envy and the dual nature of identity (the title refers to Janus, god of transitions, whose two-faced gaze looks to both past and future).
Despite sun-bleached location photography by Marcel Zyskind, The Two Faces of January has the feel of a Forties backlot thriller—Athens and Istanbul are “exotic” in the most retro sense, laden with perils and marketplace grifters. Alberto Iglesias’s stringy score and the camera’s 360-degree pans lend a whiff of Hitchcock, but the not-what-they-appear-to-be characters are exactly what they appear to be, and while Dunst looks every inch a Vogue model, her role is too underwritten to make the triangle equilateral. The treat is watching Isaac and the magnetic Mortensen enact an Oedipal dance of desperation, their black hearts racing under white linen suits.