PATRICIA HIGHSMITH'S bleak, meticulously plotted novels never fail to deliver the most cynical portrait of human behavior. That might be why her stories are perpetually adapted into films—most famously by Alfred Hitchcock—and it's something The Two Faces of January, the newest Highsmith adaptation, gets right.
Directed by Hossein Amini (who wrote the screenplay for Drive), January features a menacing, disheveled Viggo Mortensen as Chester, a wealthy control freak. Chester's hobbies include drinking his feelings, swindling investors, and marrying younger, poorer women. His latest wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst, who deserves a better role than this), is January's only sympathetic character. On a Greek vacation, Chester and Colette meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a fellow American, who—when not resenting his deceased father—goes on dates with college students expressly to steal from them.
Chester hates Rydal immediately, but Rydal sees Chester as a proxy for his own father and spots a chance to work through some vague daddy issues, riding this bad idea into Chester's criminal orbit. Intrigue (and fighting over Kirsten Dunst) ensues.
Corruption as an outlet for psychic pain is classic Highsmith: Her stories often carry a subtext of desire, generally homoerotic (see: The Talented Mr. Ripley). January's is oedipal—I guess? GREECE! SYMBOLISM!—and imbued with Great Import for reasons that are never explained.
That's a mistake. Because here's the thing about Highsmith: She was complicated—her writing is disturbing, but also darkly funny. She invented elegant sociopaths, and dared—in the '50s—to write gay characters who were neither saintly nor relegated to onerous recuperation arcs. Her world is gloomy, but it's nuanced. It's fun.
That's not the world in January, which seems incapable of humor or irony. Which isn't to say it fails. As a character study of a despicable man, The Two Faces of January is fine. But as a Highsmith adaptation, it isn't nearly as enjoyable—or fucked up—as it should be.