Tom Ripley is the hero of a series of novels from famed author Patricia Highsmith, and this film is the second adaptation (after Rene Clement’s 1960 Purple Noon starring Alain Delon) of the first of them. You could say that this is Ripley’s origin story; like “The Matrix” was the story of how a lowlife hacker became the invincible Neo, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is about how an insecure, confused piano tuner turned himself into a suave con man living la dolce vita in Europe. The film starts out in late 1950s New York, as Ripley (Matt Damon) is filling in for a friend as a pianist for a function, wearing the guy’s Princeton jacket. He’s accosted by Mr. Greenleaf, a multimillionaire ship builder who assumes he went to Princeton and might have known his son Dickie (Jude Law). Ripley plays along, and he’s hired by Greenleaf to bring his son back from Italy, where he’s having such a great time that he refuses to return home.
And so begins Ripley’s journey. But soon upon his arrival in Italy and his meeting with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (last year’s Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow), Tom is seduced by the rich young man and his lifestyle and he forgets about his mission. And then… And then I gotta stop. This is the sort of film that is even more delightful if you know little about the plot. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is the closest we’ve seen to a Hitchcock suspense in a long while. Sure, there were great thrillers in the 90s such as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en”, but what makes this one so particular is that it’s told form the twisted perspective of the “bad guy”. This makes it much more disturbing, because you get to understand and even identify with the motives of a criminal. This is sorta kinda like in Hitchcock’ overrated “Psycho”, or more precisely like in one of my all-time favorites, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, in which you also get into the mind of a violent sociopath. We like to think of ourselves as “normal” and sure, we are probably more balanced than Norman Bates, Travis Bickle or Tom Ripley but somehow, we have felt these urges. Everyone has at least once been overwhelmed by guilt, envy, jealousy or fear of humiliation, and if we didn’t know better, we might have gone to extreme measures. Like Bates said, “We all go a little crazy sometimes”…
Ripley does, that’s for sure. The thing with him is that he feels he has nothing inside, nothing that makes him who he is. Hence, all he can think of doing is looking around him and making himself into somebody else. Why does he choose Dickie? Well, he’s the kind of guy everyone loves. He’s charming, he’s fun, he loves jazz and plays sax, sails his own boat, go skiing in the mountains, flirt with the girls… The fact that it is Jude Law portraying him makes it all the more believable. Law is radiant! Even if you’re not attracted by men, you can’t help but fall in love with him. Like Marge puts it in the film, “when Dickie looks at you, it’s like the sun is shining.” But she also adds that “when he abandons you, you get cold.”
Ain’t that often the problem? Someone seduces you (consciously or just by his natural way of being), you get attached and want more, but the person bails and leaves you dry. That feeling of rejection might be the worst in the world. Marge, a nice, lovable writer, reacts to that like many women by loving Dickie even more, and by lessening herself to keep him, closing her eyes on his womanizing. Gwyneth Paltrow is very, very good. I don’t know what happened lately, but she turned from Brad Pitt’s cold, stiff girlfriend into a warm, gifted young actress. That goes into her character, and that makes it only sadder to see her taking all this abuse without fighting back. With Tom, it’s another story. His passion for Dickie is as strong as Marge’s (it’s a case of very strong male bonding, with obvious shades of homosexuality), and he’s not willing to give it up. But does Ripley wanna be with Dickie, really, or does he wanna be him? This is one very complex character, and Damon’s performance is extraordinary. I used to think he was just a pretty boy, but he’s the real thing. He’s an Actor. In this film, he achieves to appear to us as a geeky loser, and he conveys his character’s internal struggle without going over the top. He’s just great, there’s no way he’s not getting an Oscar nomination.
Damon, Paltrow and Law are joined by an incredible roster of other great actors in smaller parts. Notably, I’ll mention Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman as two other young Americans who, like Dickie, “have money and despise it”. They pretend to hate everything bourgeois, but they sure seem to enjoy spending their rich parents’ fortune. Blanchett is very touching despite her character’s pretentiousness. As for Hoffman, his performance is really surprising. He’s always good at stealing scenes and being completely convincing, but we’re starting to see what a range he has. I was more used to see him as a wimpy, pathetic loser, like in “Boogie Nights” and “Happiness”, so it’s a shock to now see him as the chauvinist jackass that is Freddie. He’s as much of a jerk as Dickie, but without his suave charm; maybe that makes him more honest. Oh, and what about Philip Baker Hall, who has a minuscule part but sells the hell out of it. The man has such presence, in just a few minutes he almost creates a fully formed character (see also his one-scene turn in “Say Anything”).
Anthony Minghella can really be proud of himself. From the stylish 60s-style titles to the haunting last shot, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is nothing but first-rate filmmaking. How then can you complain about the length? People have such short attention spans nowadays… Anyhow, this is truly a must-see. The score is strangely lush but effective, and I adore all the jazz (who wouldn’t?), the cinematography is gorgeous and the way Minghella composes his shots is inventive. It all helps to give the film a lot of atmosphere. Maybe it’s the beauty of Italy, but I really loved being in the film; it made it even more disturbing when Ripley starts doing such nasty things. Moral is against the things he does, but still, when Ripley is in danger of being uncovered, we root for him, hence the suspense. This is truly a rich, intelligent, masterfully tuned picture. If you love cinema, you’ll adore “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.