Review: Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich
Patricia Highsmith has been lauded for her creation of the sociopath Tom Ripley, but her novels have sometimes been poorly adapted to the screen. While both Matt Damon and the screenplay were brilliant in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s tense tale of the conscienceless killer as an older man became a vague wandering saga of pointless violence and weird camera angles with Dennis Hopper in The American Friend.
Fortunately for all lovers of the successful psychopath, there is Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich as Ripley. We recognize Ripley, even in a new body, even after so long. We know him instantly, that hair-trigger temper and murderous violence immediately masked by the quiet charm and creepy calm in his voice.
Ripley is in Berlin as the story opens, associated with a homosexual thug in an art scam. (There are hints throughout the story that Ripley’s connection with Reeves, played by Ray Winstone, has been more personal in the past.) The deal goes sour, and Ripley’s calm flashes into deadly offence when Reeves' client refers scornfully to “you people.” Ripley bludgeons the man’s bodyguard to death, and then calmly walks out with both the art and the cash that had been intended to pay for the art.
This brief scene, which occurs before the credits run, establishes both Ripley’s role and Reeve’s in the game to come. It also reminds us of the brutality that lurks, shallow beneath Ripley’s veneer of civilization.
After the credits, we are told that three years have passed. Ripley is back in Italy, living in a beautiful villa, with a talented wife who plays the pianoforte. We think that he must be living quietly, content. Invited to a party by an English expatriate picture-framer, Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), Ripley walks in on a devastating insult delivered by the man. “He’s restored that villa until it has no life left,” says Trevanny. “The problem is, he has no fucking taste.”
There is an uncomfortable exchange between the two as Trevanny realizes that Ripley heard his insult, and we almost expect an explosion from the American. (But when did Tom Ripley ever expose his nastier side to a crowd?) Instead, he plots a deep revenge. When Reeves comes to him with a proposition to kill some business competitors in Berlin (other mobsters, one assumes), Ripley recommends the “innocent lamb” Trevanny for the job instead.
As with the earlier movie, there are twists aplenty, but all these twists are in Ripley’s head. Once again, an actor has succeeded in portraying the complex, despicable—but somehow sympathetic—Tom Ripley. Even when we know he will turn in an instant to reveal the monster, we still are on his side. We want him to win. And we want Jonathan Trevanny to win too.
And that’s the deepest suspense of all in this tale, because we know they cannot both win.
Stunningly filmed, beautifully adapted and excellently acted, Ripley’s Game is one you will want to have in your DVD library. Or perhaps on your bookshelf next to the collected novels of Patricia Highsmith: It is worthy to share the space with them.