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Evil Under the Sun

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Jack English/Studiocanal

MOVIE REVIEW
The Two Faces of January (2014)

Enough of author Patricia Highsmith's intuition for the dire fallibility of menfolk lingers in "The Two Faces of January" to give the film a certain residual bite, despite the tendency of writer and director Hossein Amini to desiccate most of the juice out of everything. No surprise that the scriptwriter of "Drive" is prone to flat and emphatic point-making — although Mr. Amini handles his script with kid gloves compared to Nicolas Winding Refn's self-annihilating injection of TNT — but at least this gives more unhindered screen time to Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, cutting a dash across early-1960s Athens and Crete in nice linen suits while coming to detest each other.

The pair, plus Kirsten Dunst, are the points of an unequal triangle: two American males with adjustable morals and the apparently guileless woman who arrives as the wife of one and ends up in bed with the other. Chester (Mr. Mortensen) is a swindler on the run from angry investors, while Rydal (Mr. Isaac) is an expatriate tour guide not averse to swindling the tourists. A fine handsome pair they make, although the land war for screen charisma is decisively won by Mr. Mortensen before he's even taken off his hat. Both, though, make pretty useless criminals; Chester winds up complicit in the death of a private detective on his trail, while Rydal gets distracted from the task of liberating the older man's swindled money by the temptation to liberate his wife as well.

A miserable end for all is on the cards from the start, but in Ms. Highsmith's world it's the complicated and compromised relationship between males that sets the controls for disaster. Sexual and Oedipus complexes hang in the air, although Mr. Amini's restraint gets in the way of anything too hair-raising, and defaults to viewing Chester and Rydal as a pair of dirty rotten scoundrels. The thriller elements are downplayed too, a plan that would work better if Alberto Iglesias's score wasn't full of enough agitated string activity to echo Pino Donaggio and let an unconvincing hint of Hitchcock in by the backdoor. Mr. Mortensen's great trick of having a granite personality of his own while still adopting to any characterization you wish to project onto him is a gift for a character like Chester, and the film is worth it just to watch the actor ply his trade. But if you want to see Highsmith males really look like their wiring's fizzing as the mercury rises, stick with "Plein soleil/Purple Noon."

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Opens on May 16 in Britain and on Sept. 26 in the United States

Written and directed by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith; director of photography, Marcel Zyskind; music by Alberto Iglesias; production design by Michael Carlin; costumes by Steven Noble; produced by Tom Sternberg, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Magnolia Pictures (United States). Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Viggo Mortensen (Chester), Kirsten Dunst (Colette), Oscar Isaac (Rydal) and Daisy Bevan (Lauren).

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