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Murder in season in The Two Faces of January

Like several of the earlier films based on the novels by Patricia Highsmith — Purple Noon (1960), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Ripley’s Game (2002) — the principal setting of The Two Faces of January is an exotic foreign port whose glamorous surroundings serve as a smokescreen for darker, more devious doings.

Writer/director Hossein Amini’s screen adaptation is primarily set in Greece circa 1962, and the formula is much the same. Yet in terms of narrative and theme, the new film most resembles another Highsmith classic, Strangers on a Train, which was unforgettably made into a 1951 film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Oscar Isaac, nicely cleaned up after his titular turn in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, plays Rydal, a young American expatriate who is a parttime tour guide and small-time grifter.

Rydal’s quick friendship with American investment banker Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) turns into a desperate, fragile partnership after Chester accidentally kills a private detective (David Warshofsky) who’s been hired by some of his less-satisfied clients to track Chester down and settle accounts.

Chester needs Rydal’s connections to secure passports and safe passage out of the country. Rydal, who’s drawn to Colette, is thus drawn into a web of deception and treachery. He has become an accomplice to a murder, and as the three go on the run their relationship deteriorates further. Surely, no good can — or will — come of this.

The film’s leisurely, almost genteel pacing is boosted by the performances, especially those of Isaac and Mortensen, the latter offering a cool, canny display of his versatility. As the ill-fated private eye, Warshofsky makes every second of his brief screen-time count. Dunst, very elegant in period costumes, has the misfortune of playing a character that is kept in the dark for much of the time, and therefore, always seems to be playing catch-up. She looks good doing it, though.

The film truly comes into its own in a tense third act that, unfortunately, goes on a little too long, though Amini orchestrates a brilliant sequence in an immigration line that stands out as the film’s most memorable. This has also been stylishly photographed by Marcel Zyskind and boasts a smashing score by Alberto Iglesias that echoes, doubtless intentionally, Hitchcock’s long-time composer, Bernard Herrmann. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

The Two Faces of January is scheduled to open Friday.

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