The sight of a sweaty, drunken Viggo Mortensen – his suit crumpling in solidarity with the worry lines on his face – is increasingly horrific in this pleasingly old-fashioned, unhysterical 1960s-set thriller. It’s the directing debut of the screenwriter Hossein Amini (‘The Wings of the Dove’, ‘Drive’), and it has an unhurried, louche air about it that gives way to claustrophobia as it starts to get its clammy hands around your neck.
An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel – and not entirely different in tone and spirit to ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ – the film whips us back to a sunny, simpler southern Europe of Americans abroad, gentle cons and near-nostalgic film plots that turn on passports, news print and unwelcome private detectives.
Opening in Athens, the film gives us Chester (Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst), a stylish, wealthy married couple who encounter a young American tour guide and petty conman, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), just as Chester’s hidden money troubles start to haunt him. Some masks fall away while others stay firmly on as the three find themselves in unexpected peril, each of them gripping on for dear life to the scraps of information they hold on the other.
You can’t ignore the easy surface pleasures of ‘The Two Faces of January’. The locations, including the Acropolis, are as seductive as the costumes and the careful, sober camerawork. The whole thing, with its ample sandy creams and beiges, looks like it’s been carved from the same weathered stone as the ancient Greek ruins that play host to two key scenes.
But the real pleasure is watching these failed, slightly sad, not especially charismatic tricksters realise the mess they’re in. Rydal’s gravy train of siphoning cash off tourists comes to a lumpy halt just as Chester’s entire world, private and professional, collapses. Dunst handles her sidekick role with a mature ease that’s new to her, but it’s the men you remember: Mortensen in psychological freefall and Isaac always tough to read and hiding something behind a handsome, controlled exterior. It’s a gentle and smart blast from the past.