Bad things happen at night.
That’s the impression you get after watching “The Two Faces of January,” a nimble story of betrayal set in Greek cities and ruins where bodies only drop once it’s dark.
Adultery also belongs to the night, as suspected by one character whose sense of time is so whacked from an afternoon nap induced by alcohol and pills that he’s certain some extramarital shtupping must have occurred.
It might have. We don’t know either. And the omission of that detail among many others keeps a movie tapping the motifs of several genres on a path that’s startling and inevitable. Writer Hossein Amini makes his directorial début with “The Two Faces of January” from a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. His screenwriting credits include “Drive,” “The Four Feathers,” “47 Ronin” and “The Wings of the Dove.” Consider that partial resume as notice Amini knows how to skate from one genre to another. He’s someone to keep an eye on.
The movie begins at the Pantheon of Rome with American student and tour guide Rydal Kenner (Oscar Isaac) leading a group of young women through the ruins. At the same site, there’s an American couple admiring the edifice and each other under the sun’s glare – Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen, tremendous) and his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst).
No time is wasted in introducing the suspense: Rydal and Chester see each other. They’re both con artists, the first of many possible nods to the dual-faced Janus of the title. It’s telling that – in a movie which establishes an attraction between Rydal and Colette – Rydal first notices only Chester since he resembles his late father and object of hate.
After a murder occurs, the three reluctantly start a tourist’s worst trip ever despite the presence of a tour guide among them. The story’s archetypal kernels could easily thrive in a western or film noir setting but here it’s the daily travails of an American abroad: obtaining passports, using guide books, phrase books, drinking coffee, staying up all night to catch the morning bus, touring ancient ruins, navigating the maze of foreign city streets and alleys, buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, not knowing what someone is saying about you and the like. It’s stressful and it’s fresh.
“The Two Faces of January” bears remote similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s motion pictures though only because it, like most of Hitchcock’s movies, is expertly crafted. All the basics are in play and the audience understands each piece’s significance (a key Hitchcock rule). The movie skips across Greece and the suspense never lets up unlike the disappointing “The Tourist” starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
Amini’s picture consistently centers on its two male leads, who never stop eyeing each other’s activities suspiciously. The movie really excels once Rydal and Chester begin their struggle to outwit, outplay, outlast, the pair mysteriously drawn together and repelled. If there’s something distinctly Hitchockian in “The Two Faces of January,” it’s the way Amini uses point-of-view shots from Chester and Rydal to let the audience inhabit each one’s growing distrust even within the same scene, a move that subtly sustains the title’s revelation. A father begets a son that sees all his father’s sins which he has done and will he do likewise?