The still-talented Mr. Ripley

John Malkovich exudes conscienceless charisma in creepy Ripley’s Game

Everyone’s favourite sexually ambiguous psychopath is back. Two years
after Ripley’s Game premiered in Europe, it’s now been released
straight to DVD on these shores. You may remember Tom Ripley from Anthony
Minghella’s 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia
Highsmith’s 1955 novel about a young American sent to bring a rich
man’s spoiled son back from Italy. Ripley, as played by Matt Damon, was
a scheming, sexually confused cipher who loved then killed the snotty playboy
and took over his identity. It’s more than four decades later now
(though Highsmith’s book, the third of the five Ripley books, was
written in 1974) and so, believe it or not, this Ripley is played by John
Malkovich. With his coldly delivered lines and a bald pate that practically
screams “evil genius,” Malkovich out-Hannibals Anthony Hopkins as
a methodically mad monster. And while The Night Porter director Liliana
Cavani’s film is not as stylish or psychologically nuanced as
Minghella’s adaptation, Ripley’s Game draws you in with its
virtuoso performances and moody aura of menace. Three years after a colder
and more brutal Ripley rips off Reeves (Ray Winstone), a former partner, and
a Berlin art dealer, Reeves tracks Ripley down at his resplendent palazzo in
Italy and demands that Ripley help him kill a Russian rival back in Berlin.
Ripley suggests that he enlist innocent Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), a
local picture framer with leukemia. Trevanny reluctantly agrees, if only to
secure money for his family after he dies, but he soon finds himself in way
over his head. Ripley’s “game” seems a bit too
whimsical—he only targets Trevanny because he insulted him at a
party—but its violent consequences are chillingly tragicomic, from a
train washroom full of bodies (“It never used to be so crowded in first
class,” observes Ripley) to a room full of mantraps. The film has an
oddly timeless look, and Cavani lends the film several Hitchcockian touches,
from the requisite shot of a spiral staircase to a chilling murder at an
insect exhibit. The film is sort of a twisted version of Jonathan
Glazer’s Sexy Beast, where Winstone played a retired safecracker
who’s tracked down in Spain by a ruthless London henchman (Ben
Kingsley) and strong-armed into doing another job back in England. Here,
Winstone crackles as a raging, cajoling, foul-mouthed gangster, while
Malkovich puts his stamp on Ripley as an utterly content, conscience-less
killer. (Ripley has seen his share of screen incarnations: Dennis Hopper in
Wim Wenders’s 1977 film The American Friend, the first adaptation of
Ripley’s Game, and Alain Delon in Purple Noon, a 1960 French adaptation
of The Talented Mr. Ripley; an upcoming version of Ripley Under Ground titled
White on White stars Barry Pepper as Ripley). Malkovich exudes calm evil in
every scene, delivering some sparkling lines of icy dialogue (“You
know, Reeves, there’s something of the mudslide about you. Some primal
urge to bring everything down with you”). We learn more about
Ripley’s background and his present character: Ripley is married, but
his bisexuality is hinted at: he sodomizes his boyish-looking wife, bakes a
soufflé, sews and eventually inspires a perverse trust in Trevanny.
Dougray Scott makes it plausible that an ordinary man would, because of his
terminal illness and issues of sexual inadequacy, become a hired killer. But
as he is forced to lie to his wife Sarah (Lena Headey) and finds it hard to
shake off the demands of the ruthless Reeves, Trevanny becomes more
hollow-eyed and haggard, the guilt of his newfound profession weighing him
down. Midway through, Ripley tells Trevanny, “I lack your conscience.
When I was young that troubled me. It no longer does. I don’t worry
about being caught because I don’t believe anyone is watching.”
But we do watch Ripley—we’re enthralled by his calculating
ruthlessness. The most unsettling suggestion in Ripley’s Game is the
notion that fascism and murderousness can be fascinatingly beautiful and
inspire blind faith. Malkovich’s Ripley wins this game by sucking the
viewer in, making us his willing accomplices. V Ripley’s Game Directed
by Liliana Cavani • Written by Liliana Cavani and Charles McKeown •
Starring John Malkovich, Ray Winstone and Dougray Scott • Now on video

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