The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

by Cynthia Fuchs


No Going Back


f I could just go back, I’d rub everything out, beginning with myself.”

cover art

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

US theatrical: 25 Dec 1999 (General release)

On first hearing this voice-over at the beginning of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, you might think you’re going to see a film about regret or guilt, or perhaps a refined kind of melancholy. But it’s not long before you realize that for the speaker, Tom Ripley, such emotion — any emotion — is a performance. An ambitious sociopath, Ripley improvises his perpetual alienation against a stunning series of Italian backdrops, looking like the ‘50s, all splashed out and sun-blasted, in big-hearted technicolor (courtesy John Seale’s ravishing cinematography): Venice, Rome, San Remo, Sicily. Unable to nail down a self, Tom instead plies his various talents, which he describes as “forging signatures, telling lies, imitating people.”

The film makes clear at every possible point that the boy lacks any experience and comprehension of emotion, and yet, at the same time, it wants you to like him. It doesn’t ask you to identify with Tom, he’s too monstrous and, really, too frosty and removed for that. But the movie does want you to feel some vague empathy for him, because he’s such a damaged and fascinating fellow.

And really, the project itself is intriguing, to enlist your feelings for the feeling-less Tom in the interest of narrative, to make you want to follow him even though he lacks — outright — all that conventional stuff that allows you to feel easy about your investment, allegiance or desire. It’s not a novel project (perhaps you’ve struggled with your sympathies for Alec in Clockwork Orange or, with Clarice running interference, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), but it’s not one that comes up very often. The problem is that The Talented Mr. Ripley hedges its bet, not quite trusting you to deal with the dilemma yourself. And the primary sign of this distrust is the casting of Matt Damon as Tom.

Part child, part psycho, complete chameleon, Damon’s Tom is at times rather ordinary in his Clark Kent glasses and mousy-brown hair, at others devastatingly beautiful, as when he takes a smoky jazz club stage to sing “My Funny Valentine” in a dead-on imitation of Chet Baker at his prettiest, and at still others, too damn creepy for words. That he’s the Goldenboy Incarnate means that the movie’s drawing seriously mainstream attention, for instance, cover stories in Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, and the New York Times Magazine, plus “news” updates on celebrity gossip and promo shows. The movie seems important because its young stars are chic, its locations expensive, and its makers esteemed by the industry (Minghella won the directing Oscar for his overrated behemoth of a romance, The English Patient, and co-stars Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow have won them for writing and acting in those also overrated middlebrow entertainments, Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love, respectively).

With all this stacked against it, how can The Talented Mr. Ripley possibly come out all right? Or more to the point, do you care if it comes out all right?

“Neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not.” Novelist Patricia Highsmith made this observation concerning her Tom Ripley, introduced in the 1955 book on which this movie is based and revisited in several sequels. Damon and Minghella’s Ripley, unlike Alain Delon’s supersmooth incarnation in 1960’s Purple Noon, looks vulnerable, hungry (Damon lost weight for the part, which the promotional material suggests is a sign of his own investment in the part), and, on occasion, quite conscience-stricken. Still, for all these gestures toward Tom’s submerged “humanity,” he never quite achieves… well, call it substance. Instead, he floats on the film’s pretty surface, an emblem of yearning more than a developed character.

The trick is that the film thematizes Tom’s flimsiness (he has no backstory, no long lost acquaintances: all he has is the present where he performs extravagantly and relentlessly. Arguing that identity is fragile and unfixed, the film offers Tom as Exhibit A. His actions — heinous and depraved — are never acceptable; the film doesn’t attempt to deliver justice. The messiness of its concluding reel makes its many exquisite-traveloguish images seem suddenly pervious, cynical, fragmented, and arbitrary. Unlike The English Patient, this movie doesn’t exact moral payments from villains or grant viewers sentimental buffer zones. And it’s exactly this edge that makes the movie all right.

The plot, briefly (though at 139 minutes, the film doesn’t do anything briefly), puts nascent serial killer Ripley within reach of with his victims-to-be through a series of injustices and mistaken identities. At a party, shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) mistakes bathroom attendant Ripley for a Princeton graduate and professional pianist. Ripley riffs on the error, pretending that he does know Greenleaf’s profligate son Dickie (Jude Law), who’s been spending his allowance at jazz clubs in Italy (this is one of Minghella’s changes to Highsmith: her Dickie was a painter, his a porkpie-hat-wearing saxophonist). Herbert pays Ripley $1000 to fetch (the consummately named) Dickie back home to take his proper place in the family business. To accomplish his mission, Tom practices to be Dickie’s best friend and mirror image (mostly, he devours everything he can about jazz). As Tom is leaving New York for Europe, you see that his depressing basement apartment (where he can overhear his underclass neighbors fighting with each other) is located near a meatpackers: he watches the carcasses swing and drip blood as he gets in Greenleaf’s slinky limo, then leans back into the leather seat and smiles. The kid is finally cutting loose.

Once in Mongibello, Tom continues to do his homework, spying on Dickie and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Paltrow, tanned and darling in her pastel bikinis) with big binoculars, noting that his sailboat is named “Bird,” rehearsing his upper-class intonations. His appearance on the beach elicits giggles, however. As Dickie puts it, he’s “so white!’’ Tom’s a quick study however, and soon he’s hanging with the aristocrats, sailing, swimming, and drinking fine wines. He also discovers Dickie’s affair with a local girl, Silvana (Stefania Rocca), which titillates and inspires him. It makes Dickie imperfect but also more perfect, a man beyond mundane mores. Tom is smitten.

This is the movie’s trickiest negotiation, making Tom’s love for Dickie at once homoerotic and homicidal, a means to both self-identification and self-loathing. Wanting Dickie, he’s jealous of Marge, and so, pleased to see her dogged, though he’s uncomfortable when Dickie also steps out on him with an old chum, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman, affecting a nasty rich-kid attitude). Wanting to be Dickie, Tom flirts openly with Marge (or more precisely, he’s not so patently misogynist as Highsmith’s version). But all this is really about Tom’s lack of identity and self-hatred, not because he’s gay — omnisexuality seems quite fine in the circles to which he aspires — but because he’s broke. When Dickie inevitably gets bored with and mean about his leechiness, Tom has no emotional or intellectual recourse: his assault on his ideal brother-lover-self is vicious, pulpy and shocking rather than cathartic, a clunky, horrible scene out of Theodore Dreiser rather than Highsmith.

Literally taking on Dickie’s identity (along with his passport and trust fund), Tom can only get increasingly confused: you see him in elegant hotels, as Dickie leaving messages for Tom, and vice versa. Freddie makes some inquiries, the cops poke around, Marge frets, Herbert Greenleaf shows up: poor Tom is feeling the heat. This is what the film does improbably well, making Tom acceptable or excusable — even when you know he’s a brute and there is no excuse.

Taking Tom’s point of view (with occasional Marge-reaction-shots — as she recoils in horror or scrunches up her nose in distaste — to suggest that someone does see through him), The Talented Mr. Ripley treats his self-reinvention not solely as pathology (surely, this is clear enough) but as a desperate and understandable effort to attain the class-sex-race mobilities that he sees all around him. Montages of his romantic club hopping with Dickie make the point: white boys play black, straight boys play gay, moneyed boys play whatever they want.

Watching or performing, absorbing or reflecting, as Dickie’s alter ego, Tom seems able to have it all. To consider rubbing any of that out — how silly that notion seems now. Tom is even wooed by two wealthy, hopelessly naive people at once: heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) thinks she loves him as Dickie, and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) thinks he loves him as Tom. It’s not so much the amorality of his new existence that dazzles our non-hero, but the choices. Suddenly plentiful, they’re overwhelming.

It’s all so extreme and strange: what’s a freshly wealthy American in Europe to do? The movie never does straighten out its own schizophrenic regard for class (snobbery is hurtful and bad, but look: Paltrow is so passionate and lovely, so perfect as she embodies Marge’s — and her own — privilege), or its discomfort with Tom’s sex and gender ambiguities (he’s so dapper yet ingenuous, so brutal yet femme, so icy and yet so… Matt!). Ripley is a fascinating mess, despising but also adoring the garish trappings of wealth and caste, using what would seem to be its detrimental excesses (stars, budget, hype) to its advantage. It’s as much about idealizing Hollywood, commodity culture, and itself, as it is about demonizing its protagonist. It’s about a system of production, a set of expectations, a stylized ethics that’s offensively normal. There’s no going back.

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