Movies We Like
The Talented Mr. Ripley
A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.
Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, the mysterious anti-hero of Patricia Highsmith’s series of novels upon which the film is based. Tom Ripley is more a force of nature than a human being. He’s a shape shifting plague who wreaks havoc on his victims, though "victim" may be too kind a word for some of them. Tom infiltrates a privileged world closed off to most of us and lies and kills to advance his position within this society. As played by Damon he’s definitely creepy, but also perversely sympathetic.
Tom is hired by an old-money type in New York to travel to Italy to retrieve his scion of questionable worth, Dickie Greenleaf, played with sleazy insouciance by Jude Law. Tom assumes the identity of a former Ivy League schoolmate who worshiped Dickie from afar. Soon he is adopted by Dickie and his girlfriend Marge into their inner circle who idle their time in an Italian seaside town having convinced themselves that they are important artists – Marge a writer and Dickie a jazz musician. Soon Freddie, Dickie’s best friend, enters the picture and immediately sizes up Tom as a dÃ©classÃ© impostor seizing onto Dickie like a particularly insatiable leech. Freddie is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and with his tartan scarves and predatory leer he is often the most memorable thing about the film. Hoffman is a king among character actors because he knows how to make every glance and gesture count ten-fold.
Things go badly for Tom as he finds his entertainment value diminishing for Dickie who has grown tired of his new plaything. Tom had read more into their friendship than Dickie intended and is crushed by Dickie’s disregard. Tom is so vulnerable and yet so cold-blooded at the same time. We tend to root for him even as he murders the people who stand in his way and, in a plot twist worthy of Hitchcock, assumes their identities.
Tom, for all his psychopathic tendencies, is sweet in a way. Damon infuses his portrayal with the excruciating ache of desire thwarted. Tom is a shy, closeted homosexual at a time when being closeted was the only way to survive being gay for most people. He’s in love with Dickie but there’s a dimension of that love that is beyond lust or emotion and is actually a homicidal kind of addiction. The only way he can have Dickie is to kill him and become him.
The movie is filled with men and it’s the rare film where men are the primary objects of desire. They are in Italy after all and there is scene after scene of sensual depictions of men at the beach or in each other’s arms in an alleyway or, in the case of Tom and Dickie, riding a scooter together down a hill at sunset. The women of the film, Cate Blanchett and Gwenyth Paltrow, are photographed in the opposite manner. They look lacquered and frigid in a very stilted 1950s way.
Tom is forced to keep up several identities at once to escape justice. His ultimate plan is unclear but he enjoys the trappings of life for the young and well-heeled in Europe so he moves to Rome where his lies ensnare more victims. Marge knows he is lying but she can’t prove it. There is hope for some kind of redemption for Tom when he meets a friend of Marge’s named Jack who is instantly smitten with Tom’s bashful innocence. There’s a brief romance between the two and there seems to be some hope the darkness in Tom will subside. But when Tom’s secrets are threatened yet again he dispenses with the immediate threat in his midst and moves on. The last moments of the film are unforgettable as we hear Tom murdering his lover while Tom’s sobs drown out Jack’s screams at the same time. Who is Tom Ripley? It’s hard to say. In some weird way he earns our sympathy, but not our trust.
_________________________ The Talented Mr. Ripley was nominated for five Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Jude Law), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Set Direction.