Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Real-Life Ripley

John Malkovich has described Tom Ripley, the cultured sociopath he portrays in Ripley's Game, as a "person who will beat you to death if you touch his things." But what's seductive about reptilian Ripley, particularly in this filmic version of him (there have been five adaptations of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels), is the things he chooses. His Italian villa, the murals that adorn its walls, the truffles that dot his risotto, the dark eyes and long pale limbs of his beautiful wife: They're all so seductive, especially as captured in director Liliana Cavana's European-based film, that you can almost understand his perspective. And it is that collapse into Ripley's way of seeing things that engenders the film's glamorous, terrible appeal. Its surface is so of a piece, so well-appointed and elegant (even the sex), that the ripple of violence, when it appears, offers a visceral contrast that is undeniably pleasurable.

The plot is a neat trick: Long retired from his active career in crime, Ripley avenges Terry, a neighboring framemaker who has maligned his taste, by setting him up with an old associate seeking a hit man. Because Terry is dying of cancer, he bites, killing a Russian gangster at an insect exhibit in exchange for a cool 50k and a (gloomy) second medical opinion. Ripley might have merely teased his prey forever (a scene where he unrolls antique prints of insects in front of him proves almost inexcusably delicious) except that his associate grows greedy and enlists the framemaker in a second, more complicated hit — one so beyond his means that Ripley feels impelled to intervene. Why he feels impelled, and where that sense of accountability begins and ends, not only surprises us but Ripley himself, who is facing his true self with the same cocktail of resignation and acceptance that all persons who experience a degree of success encounter in their middle age.

The film's not perfect — it disrupts its seamlessness with a few too many Ripley one-liners — but it's damn near for what it strives to be, and it is amazing that it never was distributed stateside. Had it been, it would be recognized as the part, as Ebert said a few times during the festival, that Malkovich was born to play.

And even if Ebert himself did not intend that as an ambiguous compliment, I think it really is. Like the characters he often portrays, John Malkovich doesn't suffer fools gladly. He speaks in such soft, well-cultivated tones that it takes a beat to register the chill of Tom Ripley, especially when he navigates a question he finds silly or a person whom he finds dismissible (as he did at a tapas bar before the q and a's). His producing partner and Illini college chum, the accomplished Russ Smith, plays his rowdy contrapunto, especially in their discussion about the making of the film.

"Liliana took out a scene where Ripley beats a man unconscious for three minutes," Russ said. Apparently, in the filming of the scene, Malkovich busted open the skull of a stuntmen with a rubber hammer. Or, "For every scene, I wrote three versions," Malkovich said at another time. "One for Liliana [the director], one for me, and one that I thought she would accept." Note that Liliana rather than Malkovich received a screenwriting credit, although Malkovich took credit for all the smarty-pant one-liners. If initially I wondered why she was not present at the screening, I wasn't wondering by the end of the discussion.

About Ripley himself, Malkovich was at his most thoughtful: "Highsmith was not just a very good stylist but she understoood something profound about how an audience perceives sociopaths. They like them. They do things everyone wants to do." Perhaps that explains Malkovich's great appeal as well.


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