In the introduction to the Home Movies column, I noted that, given the ascendance of video rental over theater attendance, movies are generally reviewed months before most people will see them. One exception, of course, is movies that aren't reviewed at all, having never been released theatrically. Ripley's Game, which Fine Line Features has put out on video after declining to distribute it to theaters, has not quite suffered this fate: A minor cause célèbre, it has gotten some attention in the press, and even enjoyed a three-night, sold out run in New York earlier this year. Still, as a result of Fine Line's reticence it has received vastly less publicity than say, Jersey Girl. This is a shame, because while it's not the masterpiece some of its defenders claim, it is a worthy film, and one in which John Malkovich offers the best portrayal to date of one of twentieth century literature's most compelling villains.
The villain in question is Tom Ripley, the most famous creation of late novelist Patricia Highsmith. The original cultured, cultivated American Psycho, Ripley calmly slaughtered his way through the world's imperfections long before Thomas Harris and Brett Easton Ellis began dreaming their respective nightmares. Highsmith introduced a 25-year-old Ripley in her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. A small-time hustler in New York, he accepts a commission from the parents of a wealthy acquaintance to travel to Italy and persuade their ne'er-do-well son to return home. Ripley instead kills him and assumes his identity long enough to develop a decided taste for the finer things--nice clothes, nice food, nice accommodations. Over the course of four subsequent novels, Ripley, having set himself up with a lovely French villa and lovely French wife, is on occasion forced to kill those who threaten the new life he has made for himself. ("Tom detested murder," Highsmith writes in Ripley's Game, "unless it was absolutely necessary.") Apart from his penchant for homicide, Ripley is that most American of types: the imposter, the wannabe, the self-inventing man. He's the dark twin of charming pretenders such as Catch Me If You Can's Frank Abignale. As such, he is also a kind of New-World madness preying on innocent Old Europe, where people know what they are and stay that way. (Strivers who sail in the opposite direction, toward the fluidity of America, tend to be better appreciated. One such, the impoverished American immigrant Archibald Leach, could have been channeling Ripley when he described his transformation into Cary Grant: "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.")
Malkovich is the fourth of a varied group of actors to assay the role of Ripley, following in the footsteps of Alain Delon (Purple Noon, 1960), Dennis Hopper (The American Friend, 1977), and Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999). The first of these, Delon, might have seemed perfect casting for the young Ripley (Purple Noon is adapted from the first novel), all beautiful surface and hidden intent. But, at 25, Delon was not yet able to hint that dark longings lurked behind his gorgeous features; as a result, the internal life of his Ripley seems not merely obscure but nonexistent, the killer-as-fashion-model. His looks, too, render dubious the desperate envy that defines the young Ripley. Yes, yes, he wants the money of Dickie Greenleaf (or as the movie transliterates his name, "Phil"), played by Maurice Ronet. But is it really possible to believe that Delon would want to be Ronet?
If the first attempt at The Talented Mr. Ripley fails to convey the motivations that drive its protagonist, the second, Anthony Minghella's 1999 eponymous adaptation, makes them altogether too explicit. Damon's Ripley is needy, insecure, and covetous, desperately in love with his Dickie (Jude Law this time) and in constant terror that he will be found out and rejected. This characterization has been widely criticized by Highsmith afficionados, but in fact it is not that far removed from the author's conception. While the older Ripley of subsequent novels does become a villain of almost Mephistophelian assurance, this first Ripley, the one still discovering what he is capable of, is plagued by Dostoevskian self-doubt. ("He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning," Highsmith writes at one point, "It was as if Dickie had suddenly been snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. ... For an instant the shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground.") Similarly, while Minghella was chided for bringing the story's homoerotic subtext to the surface, it was no less explicit in Highsmith's original. (In the book, unlike the movie, Dickie and Marge repeatedly insinuate that Ripley is gay.) The weakness of Damon's (and Minghella's) Ripley is not its portrayal of neediness, but the failure to show how that neediness could lead to an existential decision to commit murder. In the film, Dickie's killing is an impulsive act of passion, rather than a calculated act of hate. And while this may humanize the character, it also separates him from Highsmith's original, skipping over the point at which his needs became merely wants and explaining away the void that is central to Tom Ripley.
Just as The Talented Mr. Ripley has been twice adapted to the big screen, so too has the third novel in Highsmith's series, Ripley's Game. (The second novel, Ripley Under Ground, will get its turn later this year as White on White, starring Barry Pepper as Ripley.) Ripley, now comfortably ensconced in his villa, is insulted (the details vary between the book and the films) by a local picture framer named Jonathan Trevanny, who is terminally ill. When Reeves Minot, a past associate from the Hamburg underworld, asks Ripley to find an "innocent" to assassinate one of his rivals, Ripley offers Trevanny. Reeves and Ripley carefully maneuver the picture framer into accepting his deadly commission by playing on his illness and his fear of leaving his family destitute. But the first murder leads to others, and ultimately Ripley must intervene to save Trevanny.