Murder, he schemed: A bourgeois sociopath strikes again in the masterful ‘Ripley’s Game’

February 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 12, 2015

About two-thirds of the way through the 2002 movie Ripley’s Game, after Tom Ripley has snuffed out the lives of a few Eastern European gangsters, his appalled companion notes that he hardly knows the man standing beside him.

This is a statement, not a question, but Ripley — played with a cool detachment by John Malkovich — regards it as an invitation to explain a little about himself. In one of the longest speeches of the movie, Ripley says, “I’m a creation. A gifted improviser. I lack your conscience, and 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. The world is not a poorer place because those people are dead. It’s one less car on the road. It’s a little less noise and menace.”

Ripley’s nonchalance is both chilling and thrilling. How cold-blooded it is of him to dismiss the deaths as “one less car on the road,” never questioning whether the dead men had a parent or a sibling or a child or a lover who might miss them.

Yet, in a way, it’s inspiring that this self-described man without conscience can simply shrug off the terrible acts that have just been committed. He rationalizes, sure — diminishing the humanity of the victims, and implicitly acknowledging (with his allusion to menace) that the dead men would have harmed Ripley and his companion. Still, there’s a certain practical brilliance to Ripley’s recognition that what’s done is done, that there can be no repairing or undoing these deeds and that energy used on regret is energy wasted.

Shortly before Ripley’s Game ends, after having disposed of the bodies of additional gangsters, Ripley asks if the passenger in his car knows what “the most interesting thing about doing something terrible” is. The title character then remarks, “After a few days, you can’t even remember it.” He and his interlocutor both smile.

Ripley is a sociopath, and I would in no way recommend emulating his numerous crimes — forgery, theft and, of course, homicide. Still, he’s an undeniably fascinating character. Five of Patricia Highsmith’s 22 novels comprise what fans call “the Ripliad”: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Highsmith’s fourth novel, published in 1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) and Ripley Under Water (1991).

A number of Highsmith’s books have been adapted for the screen, including her first, Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock released in 1951, the year after the book was published. Ripley in particular has inspired four films. Plein Soleil (Purple Moon) was a 1960 European adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley starring a Frenchman as the American Ripley. In 1977, the great German director Wim Wenders made Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend), an adaptation of Ripley’s Game starring Dennis Hopper as Ripley. English director Anthony Minghella, who was the son of Italian immigrants, wrote and directed The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999 with Matt Damon in the title role and Jude Law playing Dickie Greenleaf, the wealthy playboy whom Dickie’s father asks Ripley to return to America.

And then, of course, there is Ripley’s Game, made by Italian director Liliana Cavani, working from a script by who co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown. This production transplants the Highsmith novel from a French town to a picturesque Italian village. It also changes Ripley’s wife: The character of Heloise, a Frenchwoman with a modest family stipend and (I believe) no suspicions about her husband’s illicit activities, becomes Luisa, a renowned Italian classical pianist whose knowledge of Ripley’s schemes and violence is suggested (but never made explicit).

The focus of our antihero’s scheming is one Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), an English picture framer with a young wife and  a very young son. Trevanny also has refined tastes, a certain upper-crust British snobbishness and terminal leukemia, a condition that leaves him fearful for himself and for his family’s financial security.

After the framer makes the mistake of insulting Ripley at a party, the wealthy man of leisure decides to toy with him. To Trevanny’s great misfortune, around the same time, an old associate of Ripley’s comes to town looking to hire someone to assassinate one of his rivals in the Berlin underworld scene. Ripley nominates the framer.

When Trevanny is hesitant to accept the offer extended him by the oily Reeves (Ray Winstone), Ripley tells him to double the payment and volunteers to make up the difference. Since Reeves’s proposal will enable Trevanny to get a medical evaluation from a top German oncologist, free of charge, the framer has trouble saying no.

Reeves ends up summoning Trevanny to Berlin multiple times, much to the discomfort of both the man himself and his wife, Sarah (Lena Headey), who grows sure that her spouse is concealing something important. Ripley becomes increasingly involved in the errands that Reeves assigns Trevanny. These exploits eventually attract the attention of some very irate gangsters, who trace the duo to their bucolic Italian town. The movie’s final act is extremely suspenseful and contains a terrific jolt before segueing into an understated, almost enigmatic denouement.

Cavani is an Italian filmmaker who has helmed films in both English and her native tongue. Her direction here is expertly underplayed: Ripley’s Game is more of a character study than it is a suspense-driven psychological thriller or an action film, and she gives the material straightforward treatment it deserves. Despite the grimness of the proceedings, there’s a minimum of blood.

The matter-of-fact handling is well matched to Malkovich’s low-key performance. The actor makes Ripley seem like a fully fledged person. The man is capable of breath-taking acts of violence, and all too willing to shrug them off, yes, but he’s also a fully fledged member of bourgeois. Despite enjoying fine food and art and conversation, Ripley still gets bored and irritated at times. There’s something mesmerizing about the scene late in the film in which, seconds after torching a car, Ripley casually telephones a florist to order bouquets for his wife.

Ripley’s Game is a bit like a complicated wine. It’s not a film that everyone will enjoy, but it is a concoction that cinematic connoisseurs will savor.

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