The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person. — Tom Ripley
Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a visually alluring, thematically complex, and airtight thriller that dares to put a heart inside of a monster—or at least an impression of a warm, beating thing that resembles an organ, a representation of what separates us from savages. It tells the story of a young man named Tom Ripley, a part-time pianist whose talent lies in impersonating people, preferably those born into money because he covets a luxurious lifestyle. Mistaken for a Princeton alumnus after a performance, a shipping tycoon (James Rebhorn) requests for Tom to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from Italy. Considering that all expenses are paid for, in addition to monetary reward if he were to complete the assignment, Tom quickly seizes the opportunity.
It is admirable that the screenplay does not rely on merely showing Tom as a killer. Doing so prevents the material from being reduced to another suspense-thriller or horror cliché. Instead, it pushes the envelope a bit further by daring to pull the viewer into considering the way Tom perceives himself as a poor, working-class nobody forcing himself to walk in the shoes of someone else, at times literally, that he perceives to be somebody, one who is loved, regarded, important. What results is an electrifying character study with tragic elements, mainly from the perspective of our antihero, until we realize that we have grown to care for a person whose very gift is deception. Tom has played us in addition to those around him. I applaud its courageous ending.
Casting Matt Damon to wear the skin of the charming and manipulative title character is a fruitful decision. Relying on boyish good looks is not enough for this role. Notice the performer’s control of varying levels of magnetism which is almost always directly tethered to how another person might be exploited for Tom’s benefit despite a veil of camaraderie or friendship. The screenplay supports the performer by being smart enough to blur the line between these ideas. It makes us question whether a sociopath like Tom is actually capable of forming genuine social contracts with others or whether people exist simply to either aid or prevent him from reaching his goals. And because Damon is excels at projecting minute emotions, especially feelings of hurt and betrayal, when the camera is up close, we end up empathizing with him even though we know that the character isn’t capable of empathy.
Supporting characters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, Sergio Rubini) are not mere lambs lining up to be slaughtered. They have distinct personalities, points of view, and lives to live. As they move in and out of the story, something about them is always changed the next time we encounter them. This creates an exciting experience because not only do we need to evaluate Tom whose motivations are consistently elusive, we, too, need to assess those around him based on what knowledges or suspicions they’ve acquired off-screen considering the fact that these characters share social circles. Making the characters intelligent, vivid, and life-like not only breathes a freshness to the film. It also provides genuine challenges for the main character. Tom must adapt. And sometimes it is actually amusing to see him squirm and trip over the details of his deceit. We wonder at which point his lies are going to catch up to him.
Tense at the right moments and surprisingly clever just when we are convinced the jig is up, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” offers a fascinating look at how a specific mind functions. While there is beauty and decadence behind exotic locales the characters see and experience, there is a darkness here that the material is willing to explore without relying on mere violence in order to induce dread or horror. Sometimes a friendly smile held too long is most telling.