RATING |

Everything about The Two Faces of January is right, even as the events it describes - a couple's idyllic Grecian holiday, a charming American's adventures abroad - go terribly wrong.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name and deftly reassembled by screenwriter-turned-director Hossein Amini, The Two Faces of January is a coolly thrilling saga of strangers thrown together by circumstance, bum luck, and "the cruel tricks gods play on men."

That's Rydal (Oscar Isaac) talking, squiring a gaggle of coeds around the Acropolis in the balmy blue of 1962, recounting the story of King Aegeus and his seaward son. Rydal is good-looking, fluent in Greek, and has stationed himself in Athens, gamefully seducing college girls from America and nicking a few extra drachma for his time.

Along comes a handsome couple dressed in natty summer whites (all the better to suggest innocence!): Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). They invite Rydal to dinner, and the talk is chummy. Maybe Rydal's eyes rest a beat too long on Colette's, and hers on his.

Like much of Highsmith's work - Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitchcock, and the Ripley series, turned into several exceptionally seductive films (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Purple Noon) - the characters are morally compromised, shrugging off matters of conscience and culpability.

Chester has left a real mess behind in the States: A detective is on his tail, and an encounter back in the MacFarlands' five-star hotel turns dire. As chance has it, Rydal is walking down the hotel corridor at just the moment that Chester is trying to clean up matters, literally. For better or worse, Rydal, Chester, and Colette partner up, and The Two Faces of January goes from there, to ferry boats and the dusty hills and harbor towns of Crete, to ancient Minoan ruins, and on to Istanbul.

Isaac, who starred in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, plays Rydal with glinting ease. Intelligent, adrift, predatory in an almost harmless kind of way, he's confident - until his confidence is broken by the panicky game he's forced to play with his newfound compatriot. On the run, Chester needs Rydal's help - his contacts, his knowledge of the language, the land. But jealousy rears its ugly head, as Rydal and Colette flirt, and more.

Mortensen, with his cigarettes, snappy fedora, and big-city swagger, plays this con artist just right. And Dunst, sad-eyed and sunny at the same time, gives Colette an air of moody regret. Here is a woman accustomed to luxury, to living the high life, but hardly accustomed to being on the lam. To what degree is she complicit in her husband's schemes?

This is Highsmith, and so things do not go as planned for her protagonists. The Two Faces of January - drop-dead gorgeous to behold - is not a merry tale, but a murderous one. Murderously good.

The Two Faces of January ***1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Hossein Amini. With Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, sex, nudity, adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.EndText