By Eleanor Ringel Cater
When we first glimpse Chester MacFarland (VIggo Mortensen), the protagonist of “The Two Faces of January,” he could well be a Master of the Universe from “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe’s classic chronicle of greed run amok.
For that matter, he could be Wolfe himself, in his creamy white suit and snazzy broad-brimmed hat. Plus, on his arm, is the proper accoutrement: a drop-dead gorgeous blond. As it turns out, she’s his wife — much younger and properly adoring — Colette (Kirsten Dunst).
As they stroll through the Acropolis, they have that golden sheen particular to wealthy American tourists visiting an ancient land (Greece and the Acropolis). They could almost be Greek gods themselves.
However, the year is 1962 — almost three decades before Wolfe’s book. And the author of the book on which the film is based is Patricia Highsmith, a writer every bit as observant and tricky as Wolfe. Perhaps trickier, as anyone who knows “The Talented Mr. Ripley” would agree.
Chester and Colette are introduced to us, through the eyes of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young American who works, ostensibly, as a tour guide. Mostly, he’s a small-time scam artist who bilks tourists out of a thousand or so drachmas as he ”helps” them haggle over goods in the Athens flea market.
Rydal insinuates himself into their holiday, and we are initially led to think he’s the wolf and they the lambs (not slaughtered, just prime candidates to be fully fleeced). But then a private eye knocks on the door of the MacFarland’s very expensive hotel room, and things, well…things take a turn.
As is true of the current “Gone Girl,” the less you know about “The Two Faces of January,” the better it works. The film never rises to the level of brilliant, but it has its brilliant moments. Many brilliant moments. And as a kind of off-kilter character study of three people in way over their collective heads, the story exudes a certain fascination.
Freed of the Coen Brothers’ heavy breathing — he was the title character in their “Inside Llewyn Davis” — Isaacs demonstrates his own brand of charisma. And Dunst continues to impress, even in an underwritten Young Blonde Wife role.
However, Mortensen is the film’s queasy center. Watching him fall to pieces is mesmerizing. Before our very eyes, this erstwhile Master of any Universe — the once and Future Aragorn, lest we forget — melts into to a sad, desperate lump.