On paper, there are any number of reasons to be excited for "The Two Faces of January," which screens during the Berlin Film Festival this week. The three leads, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac are all actors we admire, the director may be a first-timer in this role, but Hossein Amini is the high-profile screenwriter of "Drive" and "Snow White and the Hunstman" and, beyond that, it's based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose books have previously yielded such films as "The Talented Mr Ripley," "Strangers on a Train," and the underseen "Ripley's Game." But something is lost in the translation of all these promising elements from the page of the novel (which itself is not generally regarded as top-tier Highsmith), to the page of the screenplay, to the big screen itself, and the resulting film is little more than a competent disappointment, and a strangely old-fashioned one at that. The problems are script-deep, because as a director, Amini shows himself capable if uninspired, but here as screenwriter, he'd appear to be back on the same kind of form that led to the reverent but rather mechanical literary adaptations "Jude" and "The Four Feathers."
It's a waste, though, because Highsmith's patented brand of sunny, Mediterranean noir can lend itself brilliantly to the building of a quiet, tense atmosphere of decaying unease, often marked by flashes of homoeroticism between her male characters, and moments of accidentally fatal violence; a potential bounty of textures and tones for the neophyte director to explore. And here, many of those contributing factors are present and correct: we've got Americans abroad, first in Athens then the Greek Islands, we've got two male protagonists who seesaw between being allies and adversaries, and we've a handful of unnatural deaths and a few attempted murders and frame-ups to boot. But while this should all lead to something layered and twisty, with the kind of delicious who-is-conning-whom switch-ups that can make this genre such fun, here the story unfolds in such a relentlessly linear fashion, absent not just of subtext but usually subplot too, that there is none of the expected satisfaction of seeing strands come together: there only ever is one strand.
That strand deals with Chester McFarland (Mortensen), a wealthy American apparently vacationing in Athens with his wife Colette (Dunst), when they meet Rydal (Isaac), a young, well educated opportunist in reduced circumstances, earning money as a tour guide and politely bilking clueless foreigners out of their money. But we learn early on that McFarland is a much bigger fraudster than Rydal, and he and Colette are in fact on the run from the victims of the scam that saw them get rich. Rydal comes upon McFarland trying to move the body of a private detective whom he accidentally killed, and agrees to help the couple flee Greece, prompting McFarland's gratitude but also his jealousy as he begins to suspect that Rydal's motives for sticking around might relate to his wife.
Within that plot, there are many opportunities for weaving a more complex tapestry out of the knotty emotional web the three bind around themselves. But too often those notes are absent and when they are introduced, what should be a simply a hint or an echo, a splash of background colour, is spelled out upfront in dialogue (Rydal, whose estranged father recently died early on tells his girlfriend that McFarland "reminds me of my father"; Chester and Colette's arguments about Rydal are almost comically literal) adding to the sense we get of a film that's all surface, no undercurrent, no depth. And within that framework, the talented cast flounder a bit; Dunst's role is underwritten—as are many of Highsmith's female characters, let's be honest—and Isaac does his best, but his character has to make so many sudden switches from charming con man to naive admirer to prickly antagonist to avenger, that it's hard to get a bead on who he really is. And McFarland frankly just doesn't seem smart or complex or charismatic enough to be played by Viggo Mortensen, who, as an actor, has a lot more going on in him than his character does—his interiority is never put to any use because Amini seems to have fallen into the screenwriter's trap of making sure that anything and everything important is said out loud, never trusting his actors to deliver meaning non-verbally.
In fact, there are a couple of moments that point out what the film could and should have been; the issue of class rears its ugly, interesting head at the dinner table when it's revealed that, current circumstances to the contrary, in fact it is Rydal who comes from the privileged, moneyed background, and McFarland who is the less cultured of the two. And later Rydal, aware finally of the full reality of the McFarlands' situation, confronts Colette to ask her how much she knew of her husband's crimes. Both of these moments threaten to introduce new notes and shades into the film, thorny, potentially chewy notions of social envy and moral judgment hover briefly in the air. But they evaporate almost immediately, and we go back to the step-by-step, one-thing-at-a-time approach, as though the film has gratefully pulled itself back on to the well-marked highway having teetered for a moment on the brink of territory more interesting and less familiar.
Because familiar is the word really. "The Two Faces of January" is by no means a disaster. It's undemandingly watchable in a way that, despite its exotic locales and starry cast, feels akin to a TV movie, one that's destined to be broken up for ad breaks and so can't afford to be too complex (the photography, locations and neat 1960s costuming notwithstanding, is just fine, indifferent). But on the big screen when you have a film as plot-heavy as this, lacking tension, or anything insightful to say about its characters, there's nothing to stop it devolving into episodic melodrama, and even that could be okay if it was delivered in a manner that was rich in atmosphere. But it's a sterile affair, no ambiguity, no ambivalence, just people doing one thing and then another. Shouldn't there be more mystery here? To these characters, their motivations, the dark desires of their hearts? Without that sense of mood, we can't regard 'January' as anything but a slack, minor entry in the Highsmith canon, and an overly tentative directorial debut from Amini. [C+]