Antiheroes are the norm in pop culture. The age-old battle between good and evil has evolved into a fight between the morally compromised and the truly despicable. But long before “True Detective” and “Dexter,” novelist Patricia Highsmith wrote a string of crime novels starring such protagonists. She penned “Strangers on a Train” in 1950, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” a few years later and then, in 1964, “The Two Faces of January,” which screenwriter Hossein Amini has adapted into a movie for his directorial debut.
True to form, all three main characters have a weakness for illegal activities. The year is 1962, and Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a picture-perfect American couple vacationing in Athens. They seem to be enjoying themselves during the film’s early moments as they wander around the sunny Acropolis in matching hats, Chester managing to stay cool in a three-piece suit and Colette flitting around in a yellow shift. But this isn’t exactly a pleasure trip. In truth, they’re on the run from some very angry investors whose money Chester has stolen, and a gun-toting private investigator is closing in on the pair.
But first they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac). An American working as a tour guide, he’s also a lothario with a skill for swindling people out of small chunks of cash. He’s drawn to the MacFarlands, and who could blame him? Not only does Chester seem dapper and moneyed, but he also apparently resembles Rydal’s recently deceased father. And the expat also seems to have a thing for Chester’s much younger wife.
Quickly sucked into the couple’s orbit, Rydal becomes an accomplice to a crime that’s far graver than any of the petty thievery he has committed on his own. The group ends up on the run together — and three really is a crowd. The stress doesn’t exactly bond the group so much as kick up jealous tendencies and paranoid delusions.
It all sounds fairly beguiling, but here’s the rub: The characters aren’t that interesting. Audiences aren’t just drawn to antiheroes; we want complicated portrayals that elicit conflicting emotions. We want to know the antiheroes are corrupt even as we root for them and their singular moral codes. But Colette, Chester and Rydal aren’t particularly complex, nor are they enthralling. The result of the trio’s race from justice feels as unimportant as the outcome of their predictable love triangle.
It’s too bad, too, because the actors do worthy work. Mortensen can transition from rakish to villainous with the slightest facial expression, while Isaac proves why he’s on the list of up-and-comers to watch. Dunst does the best she can with Colette’s one-dimensional character.
There’s some nice attention to detail with the cinematography and music, which lends the movie a retro feel with faded colors and an ever-present score. There are moments when the atmosphere approaches Hitchcockian, although Amini hasn’t managed to replicate the nail-biting of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of “Strangers on a Train.”
“The Two Faces of January” may lack the requisite thrill, but it offers a lesson in crafting antiheroic characters. We don’t have to identify with them, but we at least need to be intrigued.
PG-13. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains violence, language and smoking.