"The Two Faces of January" has the allure of a thriller and the haunting quality of a character study. It follows three people, all of them flawed and under pressure, and keeps the audience in sympathy with all three. It's some kind of feat to place three people in conflict and have the audience wish the best for each of them.
Set in Greece in 1962, it's a beautiful movie to look at, from the Athenian ruins to the ancient villages to the sight of Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in their starched white traveling clothes, two affluent Americans seemingly without a care. When we first meet them, they're reading from a guide book about how the Athenian temple builders relied on optical illusion - things that seemed straight really weren't on the level. No one is on the level here.
Some beneath-the-surface connection draws them to an American tour guide (Oscar Isaac), a petty swindler living on his wits in Athens. It's all very comfortable and friendly - very much in the vacation spirit of laughing and drinking and staying out late - and then something bad happens. Something that Chester (Mortensen) has been running from catches up, all at once. Soon circumstances place all three in the predicament of having to get out of town and back to the United States as quickly as possible.
Much of what follows concerns that effort. The characters are trying to get home. But the movie is really about other things. It evokes a feeling of entrapment, and the fear of the strange. It re-creates the worst feelings of travel and multiplies them until they're worthy of drama - the sense that everything is an effort, even ordering a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and everything is an uphill climb. They find themselves having to stay up all night, for lack of a hotel, and having to take awful buses or walk 5 kilometers carrying suitcases. And all the while, the dynamic between this ostensibly glamorous couple and the young man keeps shifting.
Chester is the movie's most fascinating creation. In some ways, he is almost a villain, but he's a man on a grand scale, and even his worst actions are understandable. As played by the magnetic, dapper Mortensen, he emerges as the movie's sympathetic focus - he has the most to lose, and we don't want him to lose it.
Kirsten Dunst, who is radiant in the early '60s clothes, does something interesting with the character of the wife. She makes her surface more jaded and polished than her interior, so that we can see, under the finery, that she's really just a young, open and generous person who has taken a weird detour in life. Oscar Isaac is equally strong as the slippery young man out of his depth, trying to improvise his way out of trouble.
That Hossein Amini, in his first outing as a director, kept all three of these actors in perfect balance, suggests a filmmaker who knows how to steer a performance.