Ripley's Game

(Liliana Cavani, Italy/UK/USA, 2002)


The "banality of evil" idea is itself becoming a bit banal these days.

Every time Ripley (John Malkovich) coolly does away with one of his targets, he either cracks a hardboiled joke or starts admiring the detailing on a nearby piece of antique furniture.

Ripley explains to his reluctant accomplice, Harker (Dougray Scott), that a few days after committing an evil act, he has already forgotten it. And even when he does manage to recall – during a harpsichord recital by his lover (Chiara Caselli) in some impossibly lavish concert hall – his bloody handiwork, it only brings a smile to his lips.

Ripley's Game has a premise reminiscent of the first Patricia Highsmith novel to benefit from a canny screen adaptation, Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951). Harker, in a return for subsidy of his medical treatment, is asked to kill a man he does not even know.

Murder-by-intermediary is the very emblem of moral dissociation in Highsmith's fiction. This act sets in motion not only a messy string of deaths and complications, but also a loss and transformation of personal identity.

As directed and co-written by Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter, 1974), Ripley's Game does away with the European versus American, or old world versus new world clash of cultures and manners which is at the heart of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and especially The American Friend (1977), a previous adaptation by Wim Wenders of the same book. It also minimises Harker's physical and emotional pain, something which was so prominent in Wenders' rendition.

The strange rapport between Harker and Ripley in this new version never quite gels. Malkovich's icy mannerism is met only by Dougray's affected hysteria. This necessitates a third, go-between figure, Reeves (Ray Winstone), to provide a rude jolt of liveliness.

Ripley's Game is a watchable but eminently forgettable confection. It is a "Euro pudding" thriller of the sort one occasionally sees on late night television: Italian director, English speaking actors, gorgeous locations, music by Ennio Morricone, laboured metaphors (a statue of Icarus, vicious bugs), several sex positions, and an impersonal, bloodless style.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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