Being John Malkovich — the actor, not the movie — means occupying a singular, coolly smoldering spot in the pantheon of movie stars. His looks are decidedly unconventional, and his role choices likewise. He can emit an odor of corruption and decay, as he did in “Dangerous Liaisons” and even “Art School Confidential,” and then transform himself entirely — vide King Charles II in “The Libertine.” Or he can crack us up, as he did as Cyrus “the Virus” Grissom in the psycho-hostage extravaganza “Con Air.”
“Love your work!” he told Steve Buscemi’s Garland “the Marietta Mangler” Greene, who once drove through three states wearing a victim’s head as a hat. It was a perfectly Malkovichian moment, a synthesis of the criminal and the theatrical, and a wink to the audience that couldn’t be missed. There is, furthermore, a trace of the maniacal in everything Malkovich does.
This was certainly the case in the movie that made Malkovich’s career, “In the Line of Fire,” in which he and Clint Eastwood waged psychological warfare beneath the watchful gaze of Wolfgang Petersen. It was a performance that informed, even dictated, much of Malkovich’s subsequent work: The insouciant sense of superiority, crossed with barely restrained rage and righteous indignation, made the assassin Mitch Leary seem most dangerous when he was the most controlled, such as the quiet moments before he coolly, but unflinchingly, shoots to death two hunters who have crossed his path, and then casually kills a duck.
Malkovich has been there since.
But even if he’s had a tendency to repeat himself in certain roles, this is a somewhat cruel result of having carved out such a singular niche in the moviegoing consciousness. It’s fairly safe to say that no movie Malkovich has been in would have been the same without him, and that some probably couldn’t — and shouldn’t — have been made at all.
The prime example of the latter, of course, is “Being John Malkovich.” It’s hard to imagine who might have replaced the title character in Charlie Kaufman’s script, about a portal into an actor’s brain. Adrien Brody? Malkovich has suggested over the years, via the elegance of such films like “Object of Beauty” or ‘The Sheltering Sky,” or even through the clearly mad inventions of the recent “Colour Me Kubrick,” that there’s so much going on inside the mind of Malkovich that a trip there would be a kaleidoscopic, fully catered bus ride to a Plutonian artists colony.
And it’s been as artists — such as in “Klimt” or as director F.W. Murnau in “Shadow of the Vampire” — that Malkovich has most permanently etched his ornate signature on a screen that shudders at complexities.
Although an undersung and virtually unseen performance, his work in “Ripley’s Game” represents the most demonic and well-executed part of his career. Not only does he take a role and totally make it his own, but he also demonstrates what could be, and hadn’t been, done with the part before. He imbues a killer with humanity, in carefully calibrated increments. He never repels the audiences, he bewilders them — why can’t they reject a character so devoid of empathy and remorse?
For the same reason they can’t look away from Malkovich. He reflects what they don’t really want to see, while making it irresistible.