A few years ago a movie called “The Talented Mr. Ripley” came out starring Matt Damon (“The Bourne Identity”). It was the first adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. Highsmith wrote 5 installments in the Ripley series, aging her main character, the homicidal but very clever Tom Ripley, some 30 years. “Ripley’s Game” falls somewhere in the middle of the 5-novel series, with Ripley now in his ’50s and played by John Malkovich in a role that was surely made for him.
“Ripley’s Game” opens with titular character Ripley beating a man to death with a fire poker for a personal insult delivered by the man’s boss. We also meet Reeves (Ray Winstone), a foul-mouth Brit and all-around lowlife criminal who is an annoyance to Ripley, and who, one suspects, Ripley allows to live because killing the vulgar brute would be just too bothersome. Besides, Ripley now has a use for Reeves, who the cunning Ripley talks into recruiting average guy Trevanny (Dougray Scott) into becoming a hitman. You see, during a party at Trevanny’s house, Trevanny made the mistake of insulting Ripley, thus setting Ripley on the road to petty vengeance.
The thing about “Ripley’s Game” is how hard it is to predict, which may be because some of the character motivations really make no sense. For example, Trevanny’s short learning curve from devoted husband to hitman. The script tells us that Trevanny is dying of leukemia and is worried about caring for his son and wife Sarah (Lena Headey) after his passing. Even so, his acceptance of the hitman profession seems awfully rushed. Also, Ripley’s entire reasoning for turning mild-mannered Trevanny, who makes a living framing portraits, into a killer isn’t altogether clear. Was it to see Trevanny become a vicious killer? If so, how is this humiliating Trevanny? Better yet, how does it satisfy Ripley’s petty need for comeuppance?
Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much of a payoff to Ripley’s machinations. He succeeds in pushing Reeves on Trevanny, but then what? Later, Ripley even shows up at one of Trevanny’s hits in order to assist in the killing. The scene provides the movie’s most intense moments, as Ripley and Trevanny are forced to ambush, trap, and then kill 3 men in a row inside the cramped space of a moving train’s bathroom. The rest of the film isn’t nearly action packed, although there are a number of bloody scenes besides the train sequence. The movie treats the violence with a blas’ attitude, which is the same way Ripley treats his own acts of violence. As he later relates, he’ll usually forget about all the evil things he’s done a day or two later anyway.
The movie belongs to John Malkovich (“Johnny English”), who does a stunning job as Ripley, a man who seems to have no conscience whatsoever. Even when he saves Trevanny on the botched train job, Ripley himself seems unable to comprehend why he did it. Ripley is a complex character, and Malkovich captures it just perfectly. I’ve always been a big fan of Malkovich, who plays the heavy as well as anyone in the movies today. Malkovich’s Ripley is a sociopath who is very well aware that he’s a sociopath, and yet can’t seem to bring himself to care. The character is extraordinarily difficult to figure out, and maybe that’s the point.
The scenery is all Europe, with locations in Germany and Italy. The direction by Cavani is odd, but probably on purpose. The movie has a ’70s vibe to it, as if it’s somehow anachronistic (or it could just be that “new Europe” hasn’t changed all that much from “old Europe” in my limited view of the continent). There’s a lot of aesthetic beauty to be had in “Ripley’s Game”, including some luscious views of Ripley’s large Italian estate. Also, the movie captures morning in the Italy countryside with stunning results.
And yet, I still have some problems with the movie, most if it dealing with Ripley’s game. The game itself seems to get out of hand really quick, once again making me wonder just what the heck was Ripley’s plan all along? Or did the whole thing take a detour off the train tracks somewhere along the way? If so, then director Liliana Cavani and screenwriter Charles McKeown failed to clearly show it. As a result, I was often baffled by Ripley’s actions, and was constantly wondering if this was all part of his plan, or if whatever “plan” he had concocted to get even with Trevanny had gone out the window long ago. Although how long ago I had no clue.
Despite some quibbles, “Ripley’s Game” is an excellent movie, with a quick pace and terrific leading turn by Malkovich. Dougray Scott is not all that impressive, and just about anyone could have stepped into the role in his stead. Chiara Caselli, as Ripley’s girlfriend, has little to do except look beautiful, which she does easily. Actually, the women in “Ripley’s Game” are essentially nothing more than background furniture.
It’s interesting to note that a third “Ripley” movie is already in the works. This time around Barry Pepper (“Knockaround Guys”) steps in as Ripley, and the movie itself is set between “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Ripley’s Game”. But the real question is: Why in the world is Pepper going to risk being compared to Damon and Malkovich? That’s a foolhardy choice Tom Ripley would never entertain.
Liliana Cavani (director) / Patricia Highsmith (novel), Liliana Cavanim, Charles McKeown (screenplay)
CAST: Ray Winstone …. Reeves
John Malkovich …. Tom Ripley
Paolo Paoloni …. Franco
Dougray Scott …. Jonathan Trevanny