Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Ripley's Game (2002)

Ripley’s Game (2002) ** ½
Directed by: Liliana Cavani
Written by: Charles McKeown and Liliana Cavani based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: John Malkovich (Tom Ripley), Ray Winstone (Reeves), Dougray Scott (Jonathan Trevanny), Evelina Meghnagi (Maria), Lena Headey (Sarah Trevanny).

One of the things about Patricia Highsmith’s famed sociopath “hero” Tom Ripley is that he can be a completely different character in each and every cinematic version we see. Matt Damon played him as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, who lashes out when cornered and rejected in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dennis Hopper played him as an enigma – and man impossible to get a true read on in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (which was also recently reviewed for this series). John Malkovich, who plays Ripley in Liliana Cavani’s 2002 film Ripley’s Game (based on the same novel as The American Friend) plays him more as a straight forward psychopath – a man who can kill without feeling or remorse, and simply does not understand why people behave the way they do. Like all psychopaths, Ripley in this incarnation as a brain that just doesn’t function the same way as everyone else’s. This makes it great fun to watch the ever talented Malkovich rip into his role like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. But it also makes Ripley’s Game the least interesting of the Ripley movies I have seen so far. If Ripley is just an unrepentant psychopath, what makes him all that interesting? The Silence of the Lambs was smart enough to make the main character Staling, and use Hannibal Lector sparingly – which is also what Wenders did in The American Friend (Minghella does highlight Ripley in his film, but the character is much more complex there). The problem with Ripley’s Game may just be that he is surrounded by idiots.

If you read my review of The American Friend a while back, or saw the movie, the story will be familiar. Ripley is now living a life of leisure in Italy, but he can never quite get away from his past. A former associate of his, Reeves (Ray Winstone) shows up at Ripley’s house one day with a proposition for him to kill a rival of his. Reeves wants someone clean, outside the organization, to do this job so it won’t be traced to him. Ripley doesn’t want the job, but knows someone he may be able to manipulate into doing it – his neighbor Jonathan (Dougray Scott). At a recent party, Jonathan insulted Ripley’s taste when he didn’t know Ripley was listening. This is a slight Ripley will not let pass. He knows Jonathan is dying of leukemia, and wants to take care of his wife and young son – so he tells Reeves how to play it so that Jonathan will agree to the job. Things, of course, spiral out of control from there.

The reason to see the film is Malkovich, who is excellent as Ripley. True, he takes a more straight forward interpretation of Ripley as an unrepentant psychopath, but Malkovich plays it brilliantly. The main joy in watching the movie is hearing Malkovich deliver lines like “If my watch breaks I’ll fucking kill everyone of this train”. However, it must be said that there is a reason why most psychopaths like this are supporting characters – like Malkovich’s own brilliant performance in Wolfgang Peterson’s In the Line of Fire. It’s because when fore grounded like this, the character becomes repetitive and not nearly as interesting (see the Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs which has the same problem). Ripley is at his best when he is backed into a corner, and has to think his way out of it. The problem here is that no one in the movie is even close to a match for him. Ray Winstone is a talented actor, but his role as Reeves is underwritten badly. Dougray Scott never amounts to much of a character – certainly not the level that Bruno Ganz brought to the role in The American Friend. The two women in the movie Evelina Meghnagi as Ripley’s girlfriend Maria and Lena Headley as Jonathan’s wife Sarah are also underwritten. It is clear for example that Maria knows something darker lurks within Ripley, and this in some way turns her on, but the movie never explores this – it becomes a missed opportunity. As for Headley’s Sarah, she immediately hates Ripley, and blames him for everything than is strange with Jonathan, and while she’s right, the movie gives her no reason to suspect this. The women of the men that Ripley draws into his games always mistrust him, but at least Gwyneth Paltrow had ample reason to detest him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Not so much here.

The film was directed by Lilana Carvani, whose most famous film is The Night Porter from 1975 (still unseen by me), in which Charlotte Rampling plays a Jewish woman who enters into a sadomasochistic affair with the Nazi officer (Dirk Bogarde) who raped her repeatedly in the Concentration Camps years before. Obviously, she is driven to darker material, and Ripley certainly qualifies as that. Here, she has mounted a handsome film – it is certainly well made, and movies effortlessly, and makes the most of the beautiful Italian scenery. And yet, to me, the film is ultimately a letdown. The film was supposed to go into theaters, but the American distributor held onto it for so long after it was completed, that eventually they gave up and simply released it direct to DVD. Roger Ebert fell in love with the movie, and named it to his “Great Movies” series a few years later. What Ebert loves about the movie is that Malkovich’s performance as Ripley matches the man he envisioned when reading the novels. He doesn’t match my idea however (although it must be said I have only read The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I am making my way through all five Ripley novels). There is a cold logic to Ripley that sucks you into along with him – makes you complicit in his actions. Malkovich doesn’t tap into that in this movie. It isn’t his fault – he played the role the way it was written for him. But Tom Ripley is much more complex than this movie makes him seem.

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