**** Image A Sound A
starring John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Ray Winstone, Lena Headey
screenplay by Charles McKeown and Liliana Cavani, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
directed by Liliana Cavani
by Walter Chaw When I heard that The Night Porter auteur Liliana Cavani was adapting one of Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley novels, I knew to expect something more in line with René Clément's brilliant Purple Noon than Anthony Minghella's lavishly simpering The Talented Mr. Ripley. What I didn't anticipate was that this film, which never received any sort of domestic theatrical distribution before being summarily dropped, supplement-free, onto the home video market, would be one of the best of its year--indeed, of its kind. Ripley's Game is doomed to the "direct-to-video" label and an ignominious eternity buried in the Blockbuster shelves for the occasional stunned bemusement of the well traveled and the John Malkovich fetishist--it languishes there while over-masticated tripe like The Alamo finds its way to thousands of screens, its lingering impact to remind again that the slippery slope in Hollywood's distribution game just got steeper. Ripley's Game would have looked great on the big screen--and some genius robbed us of the opportunity to see it that way, thinking we'd prefer American Splendor or Along Came Polly.
Tom Ripley (Malkovich) is a creature of reptilian remove, moving among society's upper crust the chameleon and predator. As frame-builder Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) offers: "He has lots of money, just no taste." It's an insult that Ripley overhears and that inspires him to recommend Mr. Trevanny when underworld scumbag Reeves (Ray Winstone) comes calling for an anonymous, possibly virgin, assassin. The stunning Lena Headey plays Trevanny's wife, mourning her husband's mortal leukemia even as she begins to wonder about the sudden appearance of bundles of cash in plain paper packages, taped under the sink. A film about consequences and conscience and eventually even fate and the true measure of being human, Ripley's Game is a character-driven, dialogue-driven thriller that moves with wit and elegance as it presents its pieces a playing field riddled with impossible choices.
Veteran cinematographer Alfio Contini shoots the Padua and Vicenza locations with a sun-kissed Roman warmth offsetting the chill wafting from Malkovich's Ripley, who's part dandy, part Hannibal Lecter. The effect of it is something like finding a roach in the flan. A setting in a Berlin zoo, where Trevanny's quarry takes a great interest in insects, is balanced by a deliciously cruel scene where Ripley presents the frame-maker with a series of insect prints and then more subtly as Ripley surveys one of his victims in agony with something that feels like the dispassionate curiosity one reserves for quashed bugs. Ripley's Game, if it's anything, is a film of precise, surgical movements and an unerring precision for narrative balance. The performances to a one ring true, the central quintet (including Ripley's musician wife (Chiara Caselli)) moving through Cavani's carefully wrought set-pieces with purpose and extra-textual cohesion. It's a meticulous picture, something that's easy to be distracted from by tick-tock pacing as good as anything--particularly a masterful train sequence--that Hitchcock ever orchestrated.
Ripley's Game is the film The Talented Mr. Ripley threatened to be and might have been without Minghella's affection for languid bluster and pretty faces. It's disturbing in a delightful way, thought-provoking in a non-obtrusive way, and classic filmmaking that feels fresh and modern. More, it's an indictment of an American film industry that more often than not disdains women directors and films with ambiguity and substance. Meet the terror of not making enough money with art that isn't obviously popular made by artists with different perspectives. Why the United States can't claim one Lynne Ramsey or Claire Denis, Jane Campion or Antonia Bird, or, more to the point, why decisions were made that resulted in Ripley's Game not getting a theatrical run, is the very thing people are talking about when they complain of homogenized homegrown product. The silencing of voices, the silencing of mature discourse--the fear and loathing attendant to the death rattle of domestic culture.
Under their Fine Line imprimatur, New Line presents Ripley's Game on DVD in a lovely 1.85 anamorphic transfer. Contini's landscapes are rendered with a burnished tincture that brightens a room like a fresco; I'd like to think that this means that someone really cares about this film, but, in the height of backhanded compliments, all of New Line's DVDs look fabulous. A 5.1 mix, encoded in both Dolby Digital and DTS, is lavish, reproducing dialogue with sparkle and Ennio Morricone's wonderful score with fidelity. DTS has the slight upper hand with its punchier bass channel. Rounding out the disc: trailers for this film (awful), Laws of Attraction, About Schmidt, Secondhand Lions, and The Dinner Rush, plus a DVD-ROM page of hotlinks. Originally published: April 19, 2004.