I have a conscience. That conscience is the reason I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing this flick. Usually, when one finds oneself making good on something as a result of one’s prodding conscience, the fulfilled promise never quite delivers the way it would have had it been satisfied on the date originally agreed upon. Luckily, however, there is a little bastard spirit that watches out for the procrastinating assholes like myself, and so viewing Ripley’s Game was every bit as good today as it would have been fourteen days ago, when I was supposed to do it.
Tom Ripley, however, does not have a conscience. The follow-up to Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley is as successful in its portrayal of Patricia Highsmith’s identity-stealing human leech as the Matt Damon flick was. This time, it’s director/screenwriter Liliana Cavani who brings our beloved con-man to the screen, with a lot of help from the feral grins and pokerfaced airs of John Malkovich. Dougray Scott (of unfortunate Ever After fame) and Ray Winstone round out the cast as Ripley’s cohorts, some more unwitting than others.
The action begins three years after Ripley, now living the high life in Italy, has excused his partner Reeves (Winstone) from “Ripley Finishing School.” But the annoying Reeves is persistent if nothing else, and has reappeared, complete with poached eggs, to enlist his old buddy’s help in the murders of some thugs he’s pissed off. Ripley, ever the heartless bastard with a good memory, recalls having his style insulted by a neighbor (Scott) at a party one night, and suggests that Reeves ask the foolhardy philistine—who also happens to have leukemia—for help with his dirty work.
The story really starts moving once the broke-as-well-as-terminally ill Jonathan, who is easy to bait, makes his decision for debauchery. $100,000 is a hefty sum when you’re dying and are leaving behind a wife and kid, and it doesn’t take much to get him to agree to do the deed. As a result, the first half of the film sees the mental changes Jonathan goes through while trying to get used to a life of cold-blooded killing, providing a nice juxtaposition to the characterization of our anti-hero.
The outstanding John Malkovich nails the bisexual Ripley from the first chaste man-kiss down to the last delicately threaded needle, with a little cooking advice thrown in for good measure—and all before the plush backdrop of the Clue Mansion, only with more successful, stereotypically homosexual decor.
Though he held his own just fine in the first flick, Matt Damon didn’t do Ripley quite the way Malkovich manages to. Of course, the reason for that is in the source material. Watching a Ripley at the height of his game is something new altogether, and I personally find this incarnation the better of the two. Coupled with Malkovich’s age and experience, the older Ripley character is much more interesting, as far as I’m concerned. While “Ripley the Young” is unsure and at times even desperate, “Ripley the Older, Wiser, and More Talented” is cooler than the other side of the pillow. Malkovich is on top of the performance, too. His deadpan rivals, well, a dead pan’s.
But Malkovich does more than bring a straight face to the game. He epitomizes Ripley’s mercilessly funny cruelty without so much as moving a masseter. He also manages to be both the reason for the flick's problem and part of its solution. This, in turn, gives Dougray Scott several fantastic opportunities to showcase his Andy Serkis impression. Scott does a nice job of playing Pinky to Malkovich’s Brain, embodying all the turmoil and confusion that must come from hanging out with someone who can hole himself up in a train loo with three dead Germans and not even need to spew. I mean, there is a toilet there, after all. Thinking about that kind of control could contort anyone’s face.
The psychological elements of the plot seen in Jonathan’s obligation to his family and his subsequent descent into silencer-fetish, Ripley’s hate and help attitudes, and the latter’s extreme lack of conscience are all enormously provocative. There’s something about Ripley that anyone in their right mind ought to be disgusted by. But we’re not. We’re drawn into that blank stare, to that hand wrapped tightly around a neck while its mate smashes the unlucky victim’s face in with a crowbar. And what’s not to like about a guy who can set man-traps, burn a car, and kill with good backlighting while still arriving at his wife’s concert performance on time? Tom Ripley is up there with the great liars and swindlers of all literature, and we love him for that.
Kudos to Cavani for creating a film that isn’t crap. This is an effective adaptation of a character who, though presumably round the bend, draws us in. And the good doesn’t stop with the story. The film is cleanly cut with a pace that suits Ripley’s laid-back, non-reactive personality, bringing the whole thing into a tight, cohesive piece of cinema. Unfortunately, this film wasn’t deemed worthy of a stateside theatre release--probably because we live in a country where there are still teeny-boppers fawning over Matt Damon. Ripley’s Game earned respectable reviews overseas, and its absence in American theatres has probably helped to keep its record clean. I will note, however, that we haven’t seen Being Matt Damon, so we all know who the real box-office star is.
If I had a rating system-- well, it wouldn’t be very exact, so all I’ll say is, this one would be “up there.”