This presumably got greenlit after the success of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, though even as its publicity materials try to coattail-ride that Patricia Highsmith-derived movie they avoid mentioning that it’s a de facto remake of Wim Wenders’s The American Friend. Actually, as scripted by Charles McKeown and director Liliana Cavani, this is closer in tone, especially in its depiction of the sociopath hero, to the novels, and John Malkovich – who doesn’t stoop to begging for sympathy like Matt Damon – is perhaps the most Highsmith-like screen incarnation of Tom Ripley.
We open with one of Ripley’s deals, ditching confederate Reeves (Ray Winstone) outside because he dresses as if ‘he’s on a condom run for the mob’ and bludgeoning a gun-toting bodyguard to death while taking away a suitcase full of cash and a folder of fine art sketches he has lightly brushed with loving fingers. At once, this establishes the character’s aesthetic interests, odd personal morality (he seems to kill the guy for his smudgy fingers rather than threatening him with a gun), impulsive but expert violence and canny criminality (Reeves gets the cash but Ripley walks off with the much more valuable pictures). A few years later, Tom has an Italian villa and a knowing wife (they’re French in the books) and is outwardly respectable, if ticked off at a party when picture-framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) pompously (and debatably) accuses him of having more money than taste (he interrogates Trevanny with a repeated, sublimely sinister ‘meaning?’). Just as Tom murders Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley for criticising his taste in décor as much as any other reason, so he files away this slight and – when Reeves comes back into his life, soliciting a recommendation for a hit-man – impulsively decides to drag Trevanny, whom he knows has an incurable terminal disease, into his world; however, Jonathan isn’t a disposable victim, but a project, one of the succession of men Ripley (not simply gay as in Minghella’s version) is intrigued by because he is self-aware enough to realise that folks with a wider emotional range than him have richer lives that he would like at once to usurp, wreck or take over.
Cavani isn’t as imaginative as Wenders in staging the suspense scenes – the murder Trevanny commits in the insect house of a zoo and a botched kill-a-thon on a train where he is joined by Tom are reasonably well done, but The American Friend does them better. The suspense plays better in the climax, as the killers come to Italy and Tom and Jonathan have to defend themselves. In that this stretch sticks close to the novel where the earlier adaption strikes out on its own, there’s a reminder of the feel of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon – there’s nothing wrong with it, but you’d much rather be watching a genius director than be reminded of a great book. What this version does bring to the table is Highsmith’s knack for tiny, unsettling, truthful moments: Jonathan watching through a shop window as his wife (Lena Headey) climbs a ladder while a customer looks up her skirt, realising perhaps that she’ll have a sexual life after his death; Ripley’s deadpan jokes – suggesting that Jonathan would have got away with more at school if he’d thought of simply murdering his teachers or telling Winstone’s Reeves to get to the point unless he wants to be found by a truffle pig in a few weeks time; the crux, seen from two points of view, as Trevanny takes a fatal bullet for Ripley, which shakes the sociopath for a few moments, prompting him to consider yet again what his functional insanity has shut him out of.