Casting the lead for Ripley's Game (2002) must have been an all-or-nothing venture: Few actors besides John Malkovich could so believably inhabit the skin of author Patricia Highsmith's refined sociopath. But Malkovich, with his vacant, vaguely menacing expression and devious smile, is utterly convincing as the mercurial man who can go from delicately sniffing truffles to garroting a Balkan gangster in the blink of an eye. Ensconced in an opulent Italian villa with his musician girlfriend (Chiara Caselli), Tom Ripley smugly enjoys the luxurious domesticity his life of art forgery and violence have earned him. Now much more assured and seasoned than Matt Damon's young Ripley in Anthony Minghella's Oscar-nominated The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Malkovich's Tom (who lives in a contemporary world of airplanes and silencers, rather than Minghella's sun-soaked Italy of the '50s) does share something with his cinematic predecessor: a hair-trigger temper that is particularly prone to being set off by actual or perceived slights. When Tom's neighbor, critically ill picture framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), insults Ripley during a party, it's that central, deep-rooted insecurity that drives Ripley to a characteristically twisted form of revenge. Contacted by former business associate Reeves (Ray Winstone), who wants Ripley to emerge from retirement and take out Reeves' mobster rivals, Tom suggests Jonathan for the job instead; by helping Reeves play upon Jonathan's desire to provide for his family after his death (the hit pays $50,000), Ripley manipulates his neighbor into a maelstrom of crime and consequences. The plot only twists and turns further from there, mixing moments of almost farce-like black comedy with long, quiet silences and sudden bursts of violence. Director Liliana Cavani creates a mood of bleak inevitability as Ripley's complicated game plays itself out; she trades Minghella's golden light and golden people for age-stained cobblestones and baggy-eyed weariness (the weight of what he's done literally transforms Scott's Jonathan). Despite some occasionally abrupt jumps in the story and a complex plot that's never quite fully explained (who, exactly, are these baddies Reeves wants to get out of the way?), Ripley's Game is an absorbing thriller. If you can buy the fact that an essentially good man even one in such dire circumstances as Jonathan would allow himself to be talked into becoming an assassin, the rest of the film pays off nicely. And although at first it seems like Ripley is taking more of a backseat, puppet-master role, just wait: Malkovich definitely gets his chance to fully delve into Tom's darker side. Perhaps what's most surprising is how sympathetic a character Ripley ends up becoming sure, he might bludgeon you to death if you look at him wrong, but he'll apologize nicely afterward. Ripley's Game never received a theatrical release in the United States (it played widely overseas), which is unfortunate; it probably would have done well with the literate, art-house crowd. Now they can discover it on New Line's DVD, which offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround tracks (English and Spanish subtitles are on board). DVD-ROM extras are available to those with the right hardware. Keep-case.
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