Psychopaths in Film – John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game
A masterful depiction of psychopathy is given by John Malkovich in the 2003 film Ripley’s Game. This film is a must watch for anyone interested in psychopathy and sociopathy with the late film critic Roger Ebert describing Malkovich’s portrayal as “one of (his) most brilliant and insidious performances; a study in evil that teases the delicate line between heartlessness and the faintest glimmers of feeling”.
Watching the film it is difficult to argue with this assessment. Malkovich portrays a seemingly refined man who has made himself very wealthy through a series of art deals. He gives off the air of a very cultured, intelligent man, living in a huge renaissance mansion in Italy, but very early on we learn there may be more behind the cool exterior as we see he has no problems resorting to ruthless violence when a deal is appearing to head south.
We later see him walk in on a neighbor insulting him at a party. The ensuing scene is uncomfortable but rather than than exacting a simplistic violent revenge as so many movies would depict, Ripley sets about constructing an elaborate plot to psychologically torture the man who insulted him. The rest of the film follows this storyline to it’s conclusion as Ripley find great amusement in the elaborate games he plays and the anguish he causes in his target.
Psychopaths as Cold, Detached Observers
Malkovich brilliantly portrays the cold detachment psychopaths have from ordinary human feelings and values. Ebert describes a scene where Malkovich’s character “regards (his wife) in an unsettling way, not sharing in the pleasure but calculating it’s effect”.
Therein lies a perfect description of the psychopath’s detachment from humanity and ordinary feelings. Psychopaths are extremely manipulative; they know how to induce pleasure and pain in others but they do not share these feelings or empathise with people. They are coldly calculating in their actions.
They are very quick to spot people’s likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses; they are constantly observing people with a cool detachment and gathering information on them that can be used to manipulate them later on.
There is no such thing as an agenda-free, innocent interaction with a psychopath. They are always looking for buttons to push and their emotional emptiness means they never truly share pleasure or pain with others. There is a facade of normalcy, a Mask of Sanity (view the book on Amazon) that covers their fakeness and lack of genuine human connection.
Every now and then, this mask does drop however, and we see the real person, the “animal nature beneath the cool facade” as Ebert puts it. In Ripley’s case this is usually when he is involved in violence, dispatching anyone who he needs to with a cold, ruthless detachment.
Psychopaths Cannot Understand Altruism
This psychopathic trait is further exemplified in a scene towards the end, where a man selflessly sacrifices his own life to save Ripley’s. Ripley cannot express gratitude for this, only amazement and puzzlement. “Why would you do that?” is all he can come up with.
This is a perfect depiction of the lack of internal moral compass and the detachment from decent human values that psychopaths have. He cannot understand selfless acts, even from a dying man.
In the psychopath’s world, everyone is only ever out for themselves and the thought of doing something kind to or for someone else with no strings attached is anathema to them. They can only ever relate to self absorption and selfishness and they judge others by these values as well.
They treat altruism, generosity, self sacrifice and “goodness” in general with a detached curiosity and sometimes even a disdain. They wonder “why would someone do something for someone else just for the sake of it, without any agendas or motives?”It is a question psychopaths such as Ripley can never answer in their emotionless inner world devoid of empathy.
Psychopaths Often Prefer Psychological Rather Than Physical Violence
Malkovich’s performance in Ripley’s Game is a truly phenomenal portrayal of psychopathy in it’s subtleness and nuance. Films about violent psychopathy are commonplace these days; what elevates this performance is it’s clever depiction of the psychological rather than the physical violence certain psychopaths are capable of.
Much like Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass character in Sexy Beast, Ripley is, with a few exceptions, mostly controlled and non violent, more interested in inflicting psychological rather than physical violence on his victims.
Low level psychopaths often lack intelligence and are satisfied with outlets of physical violence. Psychopaths also often learn that outward displays of aggression are often punished by normal society and so they learn to “go underground” and conceal their destructiveness.
Higher level psychopaths such as Ripley seek a more refined power trip, toying with their victims psychologically for their own internal amusement, often discarding them and moving onto someone else once they consider their game is “won”.
Ripley will kill if he has to but he does not get low level kicks off it like the stereotypical psychopath portrayed in so many movies. It is merely a means to an end for him.
We doubt a more brilliant portrayal of refined, malevolent, higher level psychopathy exists than John Malkovich’s performance in Ripley’s Game. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in psychopathy. The film as well as the book it is based on are linked below.
Click here for Rober Ebert’s review of Ripley’s Game
Please comment down below if you have seen the film. What did you think of Malkovich’s performance and which films do you think are similar?