A Cult Of One: Ripley’s Game

Directed by Liliana Cavani | Written by Cavani, Charles McKeown, from the Patricia Highsmith novel | 110 min | 2002 | VOD, Digital, and Hoopla

This is a semi-regular segment on FITI where I shine a light on a feature distinctly unloved, or underloved, which for one reason or another deserves reappraisal.

I was reminded of Ripley’s Game this week when I started watching the Netflix series, Ripley, and how often Patricia Highsmith’s signature series of books, known as “The Ripliad,”  has been adapted for film and television. The lead, Tom Ripley, is a charming sociopath, comfortable with murder when it suits him but somehow compellingly attractive nonetheless.

The Talented Mr Ripley was filmed in 1960 in French as Plein soleil aka Purple Noon — with the beautiful Alain Delon in the lead, and perhaps most famously in English in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, starring Matt Damon as Tom, a more insecure but also more sympathetic take on the character. He’s outshone by the wild charisma of Jude Law as Dickie, his wealthy friend and obsession, along with Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s the same story, from the first book, that’s the basis for the new series starring Andrew Scott.

Another one of the books, Ripley’s Game, was turned into a terrific Wim Wenders film, The American Friend, in 1977, starring Dennis Hopper as Ripley. It finds the character in middle age involved in art forgery, more confident than when he was a young man but just as dangerous and unpredictable.

This adaption comes from Liliana Cavani, the Italian director best known in North America for the controversial 1974 picture, The Night Porter. Co-screenwriter Charles McKeown worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. These are experienced filmmakers and know their way around material like this, a stone cold Euro-thriller. Largely ignored at the time, the picture is surprisingly entertaining, especially for those who appreciate the deadpan charm of John Malkovich.

Along with Dangerous Liaisons and maybe Con Air or In The Line Of Fire, I’d suggest the role of Tom Ripley is the one that best suits Malkovich’s unruffled matter-of-factness — and that even includes his playing “himself” in Being John Malkovich. As with most of the on-screen interpretations of Ripley, he’s fundamentally unknowable. He seems to barely understand his own motivations and is prone to impetuous bursts of violence. He’s fearless, manipulative, and just slightly curious. Malkovich’s persona is a bit of a mystery himself, making him the quintessential Ripley.

Even though his name is in the title, he actually disappears for chunks of the picture. We meet him in Berlin where he’s selling art forgeries, partnering with a coarse British gangster, Reeves, played by the excellent Ray Winstone. It all goes south but we see plenty of evidence of Ripley’s murderous rage, and that he doesn’t really care that much for money since he has so much of it. He lives in a sprawling Italian villa with a much younger wife, Luisa (Chiara Caselli), who’s a musician. The locations, while not shot with a lot of glamour, are fantastic.

Invited to a party by a local art framer, Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), Ripley’s insulted by his host. There’s no doubt he’ll find some way to get his retribution, even if it takes the rest of his life, or Trevanny’s, which may soon be cut short — the framer is battling leukemia. Reeves shows up unexpectedly, asking Ripley to do him a favour, to assassinate a business rival. Ripley arranges for Trevanny to get the offer, an opportunity to make a chunk of money he could leave for his wife, Sarah (Lena Headey), and young son, after his likely imminent death.

Scott is convincingly anxious, though perhaps not as sickly looking as you might expect given his condition. He’s the ostensible heart of the thing, and provides the required emotion, but he’s too confused and weak-willed to make a compelling protagonist — he’s entirely out of his depth in this world of deceit and murder. Naturally, his having killed one gangster isn’t enough for Reeves. There’s going to be more, and how will Trevanny explain the influx of money to his wife, who is growing suspicious? Ripley doesn’t get involved in this until much later, when he feels he has to, and chaos ensues.

The violence, when it comes, is convincing and bloody — but it’s also hilarious. What starts as a cat and mouse thriller — entirely indebted to any number of Hitchcockian espionage and suspense dramas going back Strangers On A Train, another Highsmith adaptation — becomes a surprisingly comedic action picture.

Trevanny and Ripley make an engaging odd couple trying to stay a step ahead of Reeves’ competition, a gang of Ukrainian and Russian heavies. Ripley offers a number of mordant, tasteless jokes, and lays a collection of bear traps in his kitchen for any unwelcome guests. It’s practically slapstick.

Does he end up learning something about himself while he ruins Trevanny’s life for the most petty of reasons? Perhaps, but mostly he amuses himself as he gets what he wants and we get to watch. No one will confuse Ripley’s Game with the art house heights of The American Friend or The Talented Mr Ripley, but while giving in to the material’s more pulpy pleasures, it may be the adaptation you return to more often. I certainly have.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.