LOS ANGELES (AP) — Who can say no to a good Patricia Highsmith adaptation? Though her 1964 suspense thriller "The Two Faces of January" is not the easiest story to bring to the screen. Still, the production, shot in Greece and Turkey, is truly lush and the actors - Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst - almost too subtle and nuanced for the roles they play. The result is easy viewing.
Built around a trio of greedy, lying, vapid losers, the film opens in Athens at one of the world's most clichéd tourist sights, the Parthenon. But it's 1962 and things looked newer then. Rydal (Isaac), a good-looking young American expat living in Greece, is playing tour guide to a group of breathless college girls while portentously talking about "the cruel tricks gods play on men," when a swanky American couple frolicking around the ruins catch his eye.
Chester McFarland (Mortensen) is not easy to warm up at first glance. Much older than his pretty wife Colette (Dunst), there's a shrewdness about him that allows him to size Rydal up on the spot, watching as the boy brazenly short-changes one of the girls on his tour. Rydal tells the couple he's a Yale grad who's in Europe while he tries to figure out what he wants to do in life. Chester says he's an investment broker and hires the boy to take them around. Neither one seems particularly trustworthy and the viewer makes a note.
Over dinner that evening, Rydal can't take his eyes off the light-hearted Colette, though his own date (Daisy Bevan) seems equally worthy of attention, not to mention rich and available. Since the underground Colette-Rydal attraction is so crucial to the plot, it would have behooved everyone to work on a little chemistry.
In addition to jealousy, Chester has new problems to deal with when a private eye sent by the mob (played tough by a hard-nosed David Warshofsky) tracks him down to his luxurious hotel room, just as he and Colette are tucking into bed. Awkwardly, the men decide to talk in the bathroom, and by the next scene Chester is dragging his unconscious nemesis down the thickly carpeted hall back to his own room. Rydal appears at the wrong moment and is forced to help him, not realizing the trouble he's getting into.
The most puzzling piece of plotting is why the McFarlands check out of the hotel in the dead of night, leaving their passports behind. The moment they leave the hotel they are on the lam, in a foreign country, without any way to get home. Sensing easy money to be made, Rydal follows them like a guardian angel and whisks them into hiding on the scintillating island of Crete, where a lot of story takes place. Suffice it to say things go from bad to much worse.
The film's major plus is its exotic atmosphere. It's a time when you could still meet men like Chester who had been on the European front in World War II and returned as tourists, and when smart Ivy League grads could bum around the continent instead of paying off student loans.
On his first trip behind the camera, the British-Iranian Amini shows his skill at working with actors and sensing the way they can fill out literary characters. His screenplay generally feels more naturalistic than Highsmith, the dialogue less spare. As Chester's wife and Rydal's potential seductress, Dunst has the least exciting role of the lot, something of a bone over which the men contend, glowering at each other. Mortensen's elegant-until-cornered Chester is a layered character with quite a moral range, from nefarious swindler to a man able to make a grand redemptive gesture. He cuts an ugly but human figure vis-a-vis Rydal's petty con man. But as Chester points out, it's only a matter of time before the younger man turns into him.
"The Two Faces of January," a Magnolia release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some violence, language and smoking." Running time: 96 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.