Ripley's Game

Right, wrong, they just can't stop it
Liliana Cavani
John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Ray Winstone, Lena Headey
The Setup: 
An older Tom Ripley nudges a casual acquaintance into murder.

I recently got up my courage, ambition, willful ignorance and delusion up to start writing a novel again, which is about a sociopath, and I knew the thing to read to see how it's done is The Talented Mister Ripley. That novel is a bang-up read and you should totally go for it. Then I started re-reading this sequel (a quite good one that develops the character in fascinating ways), and thus decided to re-watch this film. The story with this film is that it is made by Liliana Cavani, who directed The Night Porter, and made a few headlines in its time for the fact that it was (said to be a) good movie that didn't get picked up for American release, the implication being that Americans are too stupid and illiterate to make releasing a film like this worthwhile. I was sucked in by that logic, but another factor that must be considered in that equation is that honestly, this really just isn't that great a movie.

If you've read any of the novels the movie gets off to a WRONG WRONG WRONG start by having Ripley impulsively kill a low-level thug of an art dealer out of pure annoyance. It is a scene that is not in the novel, but added here to establish Ripley's character, and give us an exciting opening scene. Thing is, the character from the novels avoids murder as best he can, resorting to it only when absolutely necessary, and always having to deal with the consequences. Ripley would never just off a thug out of annoyance, and--hi, are there no police in that town? He just kills this guy and no one ever hears anything about it again? In the movies, yup.

The scene of the novel has been moved from France to Italy, and now Ripley lives in a gigundous villa with topiaries and frescoes and shit. In the novel, Ripley has created a life of quiet comfort and understated luxury, not taking too much more than he needs. Here he has the massive house and everything speaks of Eurotrash luxury with high-end accessories. He is invited to a party at the home of Jonathan Trevanny, played by Dougray Scott. He overhears Jonathan say that Ripley has "too much money, and no taste," a vast intensification of the insult in the novel, which was merely saying "Oh, I've heard of you" with a tone. This turns out to be the initial reason that Ripley decides to mess with Jonathan's life.

It would hap that Jonathan has a form of leukemia, and when Ripley's friend Reeves, played by Ray Winstone, comes by to request a killer, Ripley has the idea to suggest Jonathan, who has never been involved in something like that in his life. They play on Jonathan's illness and the idea that he could make money to ensure the future of his wife and young son. In the book, Ripley spreads a rumor, that gets back to Jonathan, that his illness is getting worse and everybody knows it but him. Then Reeves can swoop in and offer expensive medical treatment as part of the deal. That happens in the movie, in much less psychological detail, which is appropriate. Ripley adds 50 thousand of his own to the 50k Reeves promises Jonathan, and eventually Jonathan agrees. All he has to do is shoot a man. He soon does, collects some of the money (there may have to be another job) and hides it under his sink. Soon his wife is asking how they can suddenly afford some of the nice things they're buying.

Soon Jonathan is pressured into doing another, much more dangerous job, in which he must strangle a mafia guy with a garrote on a train. He is finally forced into it, and tells his wife that he is doing experimental cancer research for which he is being paid. Ripley doesn't think the plan is a good idea, but by that time, Jonathan is already gone. Jonathan is on the train, gearing up to do the job, when suddenly Ripley shows up, and does it for him. They end up killing two other bodyguards as well. Afterward, they have a chat in a bathroom where Ripley says he used to be bothered by his conscience, but not anymore. Then Jonathan seems to know all about Ripley's involvement, although we've never seen him be told. Jonathan collects the rest of his money and goes home, where his wife has found the previous stash and demands to know what's going on.

From here on everything is different from the novel, but mostly the same in spirit. There is an attempt on Reeves' life, where we see (new to the film) that he is homosexual. He comes to Ripley's and is refused entrance. None of this is in the book, where Reeves handily escapes. Ripley knows that there will be an attempt on his life, and warns Jonathan, who, in the film, arrives unbidden at Ripley's house to help him fend off the siege. In the book, Ripley asks him for help. It's a small but key difference that slightly skews the content. We've also compressed the few days between the train killing and the siege from a few days to a day. They fend off the attackers, and Jonathan's wife shows up and sees that he has killed people.

Ripley drops Jonathan off at home, but sees a car parked not far away. He goes into the house and finds gunmen there, and shoots one. Another is about to shoot him, when Jonathan ends up in the way and is shot. We are supposed to understand that he deliberately takes a bullet for Ripley, but it is not clear in the film. Soon we'll see Ripley remember the smile that spreads across Jonathan's face as he expires. Ripley goes to see his wife's concert, where we are invited to reflect on the monsters who walk in our midst, and that's it.

As an adaptation of the novel, a very pale one. The book has a whole undercurrent of Ripley's corrupting this innocent, good man, ultimately ruining his life, and all on a whim. Then there's the homoerotic content of Jonathan growing closer to Ripley and coming to depend on him (and estranged from his wife) and feel protective--of the man who ruined his life. Jonathan's final sacrifice for Ripley is supposed to be the capping irony, and the whole thing comes off, in Highsmith's expert way, as brilliantly perverse. What comes through in the film is, well, not much of this. You see the actions, but don't have much time (or direction) to think about what they represent, and what it means. As a result the film expresses the plot of the book but without the ironies and perversity that really give it its reason for existing. You're left with a middlebrow, mildly intriguing Euro-suspense film.

John Malkovich, with his affectless demeanor and delivery, is an ideal choice to play Ripley as an older man. But the movie's conception of his character is a bit off, bringing him closer to a Hannibal Lecter than his character as conceived in the books. The opening murder is a fatal mistake, the move from France to Italy skews the whole story a certain way, Ripley's affluent lifestyle skews it a certain way, and what you're left with is a bit less interesting and complicated than is delivered on the page. Ripley is also portrayed as ragingly heterosexual here, whereas the first book makes it quite clear that he is primarily homosexual, and in this novel he is married, but it's clear it is mainly to receive his wife's money. Also, Jonathan's house and lifestyle comes off as quite luxurious and charming, losing the whole motivation of his wanting the money to provide for his wife and child after his death. What you're left with is a tepid crime film aiming for sophistication but trying a smidge too hard, and leaving all of the eerie, haunting and genuinely perverse content locked away in the novel.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, but you're much better off reading the novel.