Hossein Amini wrote the screen play for Iain Softley’s 1997 screen adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, about a man plotting to inherit a fortune by pretending love for an invalid, and his partner, a woman with the foresight of Lady MacBeth. Now Amini adapts as well as directs another novel about a secretive threesome abroad, Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January. Highsmith’s prose is not as complex as James’, but the Oedipal structure of her tale makes for compelling viewing.
In 1962, a wealthy American, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), is sporting his trophy wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), across Europe. A young American tour guide, Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac), offers to guide them around Athens. Chester hires him, although he has already seen the young man cheat his date when paying a restaurant tab. Soon Chester and Colette are wondering, Who is this fellow who claims to be a Yale graduate and the dispossessed son of a rich and terrible father? Whoever he is, he speaks several languages and knows Athens intimately, and Chester can spare the money Rydal skims from the couples’ purchases in the bazaar.
One night a detective comes to the MacFarland’s hotel room and demands payment for a client whom Chester has scammed out of a lot of money—not just a few drachmas tacked onto a restaurant check. Chester punches the detective, planning to flee the hotel while his antagonist is unconscious, but the man hits his head and dies. Chester and Colette, who seems upset but not unduly surprised, call on Rydal to get them out of Athens.
The three become fugitives while Rydal arranges for fake passports and Chester doles out wads of cash. In forced proximity, the attachments among the fugitives proliferate. Chester and Rydal are psychically handcuffed by the murder, to which the younger man is now an accessory. The handcuffs chafe increasingly as Colette begins to turn against her husband for getting her into this mess and toward the handsome and attentive Rydal.
Rydal’s conscious reason for helping the couple escape is that he loves Collette, but infatuation blinds him to a another barely submerged motive. He can punish his implacable real dad by stealing the wife of his surrogate father, Chester, whose crimes tower over his own petty larcenies. Furthermore, like Chester, he cannot resist an opportunity to make money, the riskier the better. The world of the film being Greece, a fateful meeting at a crossroads between Chester and Rydal looks inevitable.
Oedipus is not the only mythical character brooding over the film, however. There is also the two-faced Janus, an image first of the amiable bilking tour guide and then of the hotshot financier murderer. But possibly the most two-faced of the group is Colette (whose name, it turns out, is a pseudonym), giddily attached to her husband’s arm and wallet until the going gets rough. The film works hard to give her victim status, but fails. Perhaps Kirsten Dunst is not a good enough actress to make the character compelling, or perhaps Highsmith, the fox, realized that Jocaste is merely a cipher, currency in the rivalry between father and son.