Saturday, February 20, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Ripley's Game

Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game (2002) is both a 'produced and abandoned' and an 'off the shelf' candidate. I've now watched it three times over the last five years, and this picture gets better with each viewing. Each visit to Ripley's world pulls back layer after layer after layer of what it means to be human. It is almost criminal that this picture was never released in North America, because Ripley's Game is everything Anthony Minghella's much-praised, but inferior, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) was not: disturbing, compelling, funny (in a rather sick way) and wonderfully acted. It also holds a mirror up to the rest of us and dares the viewer: Take a look. This, too, is humanity.

John Malkovich doesn't just 'take over' from Matt Damon in this sorta sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley (technically, this is actually a remake of Wim Wender's The American Friend, both based upon Patricia Highsmith's novel), he shows the 'kid how to play depraved'. It is to Malkovich's credit that he does nothing to make this psychopath likeable. Yes, he's cultured, has impeccable manners and taste, yet he thinks nothing, in the first two minutes of the film, of beating a man to death.

Highsmith made a career out of thrusting two disparate people together and then seeing what happens. One, of course, was often a psychopath. Strangers On A Train is probably her best known work (the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film). Ripley's Game is no exception. Ripley is living a life of extreme luxury in a small town in the Veneto region of Italy. A 'business associate' of Ripley's, Reeves (played to seedy perfection by Ray Winstone), arrives at Ripley's villa and asks him to kill a Russian mobster for him. Ripley refuses but he suggests a more interesting 'game'. Why not get a complete innocent to do it for him? Ripley's neighbour, Jonathon Trevanny (Dougray Scott - the villain in Mission: Impossible II) is the likely candidate. The day before, Trevanny had inadvertently insulted Ripley to his face. Trevanny, a generally good man, is a picture framer who is dying of leukemia. His family struggles to make ends meet as he desperately goes from doctor to doctor to see if anybody can offer a cure. The insult has put Trevanny in Ripley's high beams, so he puts Reeves onto him.

Reeves gets his hooks into Trevanny and through cajoling and a carrot of a 'specialist in Berlin', convinces him to take up the challenge. The innocent proves to be 'talented' in his own right. Later, Reeves bribes him into doing it once more. When Ripley gets word of this, having strangely taken a liking to Trevanny, he is not pleased. The sequence that follows, as Ripley helps Trevanny take care of three men...on a train (Highsmith clearly likes trains) is simultaneously disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Cavani, best known in North America for the controversial The Night Porter (1977), understands Ripley a bit too well, I think. She seems to like him, but fortunately she never allows us to warm to him. If there is a negative here it is that there is an almost uncomfortable chilly cool to this picture. Cavani is probably a misanthrope, but she seems to only mildly hate humanity. Unlike Ripley, she seems to know how to hate; he just doesn't get the whole emotion thing. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, during one simultaneously great and too on-the-nose sequence, Trevanny and Ripley have this exchange:

"Who are you?" Trevanny asks Ripley.

"I'm a creation and a gifted improviser. I lack your conscience, and when I was young, that bothered me. It doesn't anymore. I don't think about getting caught because I don't think anybody's watching."

"Why did you pick me?"

"Partly because you could [do the killing]; partly because you insulted me."

The humanity is supplied by an often fine performance by Dougray Scott. Scott’s character seems to be dazed by what is happening to him and I think that’s a legitimate reaction any of us would have if someone convinced us to commit murder and then we discovered we had a talent for it.

There’s a brief scene shortly after the dialogue piece I quoted above where Trevanny and Ripley, after committing the train murders together a few hours earlier, walk out of the Milan airport. Ripley strolls blissfully and happily ahead while Trevanny stumbles down the stairs, rounds a corner and promptly throws up. It is left up to us to decide if he threw up because of what he witnessed - or what he feared he was becoming.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. There were five Ripley novels? Everyone a gem. And Malkovich played him perfectly. He needs to do the other Ripleys as well. I don't think you could find a more psychopathic character than Ripley, but there is a bit of compassion in the man, and I do see it from time to time in Malkovich.

    Was it never released theatrically in Canada, not even in Quebec? I guess we can blame The Lord of the Rings...