The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)


When I watch a movie I like my mind to be stimulated. A heavy moral guideline is not a must, but appreciated. The most pleasurable films for me are often controversial, since I enjoy a good moral paradox. The Talented Mr. Ripley is just such a film, one you don't know whether to love or hate based on its moral flaws. In some respects it's similar to Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, a fascinating study of a crime from the murderer's perspective. Matt Damon plays the surprisingly sinister role of the quiet, under-assuming but deadly Tom Ripley. Had Tom not made one rash decision, none of the horrific events in the film would have followed. What this movie explores is the concept of identity... and what you can lose through playing a faade. It also raises important questions about a slow descent into evil, and facing the consequences of a lifetime of lies. However, it also asks us to root for a murderer.


Tom Ripley is a struggling pianist-tuner and bathroom attendant living in the basement of a Manhattan slum. Extremely talented, introverted and mysterious, he makes the acquaintance of the world's leading shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) at a musical gala. The multi-million dollar businessman is under the presumption that Tom attended Princeton University with his son. Liking the attention and respect granted from this guise, Tom fakes at remembering the boy. Dickie (Jude Law) is off gallivanting in Italy with his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his father desires his return to the States, hoping to force his heir into assuming responsibility in the business world. All other attempts having failed, Greenleaf offers Tom an all-expense-paid trip to Italy with a thousand dollars clear to convince Dickie to come home. 


Eagerly Tom agrees. Enjoying the white-collar treatment the Greenleaf name employs, he briefly assumes Dickie's identity in order to impress a fellow traveler, Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), a young American socialite. Making a careful study of his quarry, Tom makes a farce of stumbling across Marge and Dickie, introducing himself as an old Princeton classmate. Since Americans are few in Rome, Dickie welcomes him into their wealthy inner circle and takes advantage of his trusting friendship. When learning the truth of Ripley's reasons for having come to Italy, Dickie decides to stretch his friend's "expense account" with luxuries on his father's tab. Having had a taste of high-society life, Tom is rapidly becoming engrained in what money can purchase... and enthralled with his newfound friends. Marge is sweet and forgiving but not completely happy in her romantic attachment. Dickie is notorious for cheating on her with local girls. As she eloquently puts it, "The thing with Dickie... it's like the sun shines on you, and it's glorious. And then he forgets you and it's very, very cold. When you have his attention, you feel like you're the only person in the world; that's why everybody loves him so much."


Another American in Rome and close friend of the family, Freddie Myles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), believes Tom to be a "mooch," and is willing to undermine his friendship with Dickie at any cost. The backlash of this turbulent relationship will threaten the lives of all who stray into this close-knit inner circle, including Meredith Logue and Marge's close friend and composer Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). The movie rapidly transforms from a thought-provoking study of psychotic drama into a first-rate thriller. Not knowing what Tom will do next gives the audience a terrifying sensation. When provoked, and in the presence of others oblivious to his violent nature, for the first time you truly know the emotions of a serial killer. Which is what Tom turns out to be... his first crime is impulsive, an accident he chooses to cover up. The second is provoked, a fear-based reaction. The third and final is premeditated, and probably the only one he'll regret. The character of Tom Ripley is second only to Hannibal Lector when it comes to cold-hearted psychopaths. You don't understand him, and don't want to.


One of the film's best scenes is when Marge accuses Tom of having killed Dickie. The audience knows she's hit on the truth... and also that Tom has a razor blade in his pocket. The resulting impact is pure Hitchcock. It's nothing short of fascinating to watch the intricate traps Tom sets for others to fall into; the fact that he can successfully carry off multiple lives without arousing suspicion is incredible... but also enlightening. One profound speech he gives to Peter Smith-Kingsley illuminates a soul crying out for redemption; he also confesses people under delusions actually believe themselves. Tom knows he's a killer, but part of him also thinks he's two people. He has no way of justifying his actions, yet fails to feel sorry for them except at the very end, when it's too late. From a purely cinematic perspective, this film is incredible. The music never fails to fit the mood, the costuming is splendid, and the panoramic scenes of Rome, Venice, and other Italian vistas are nothing short of breathtaking. The acting is very solid on all levels.


Even minor characters have surprisingly good dialogue and impact on screen, from Blanchett's well-adapted American accent to Paltrow's emotional breakdowns, and Davenport's quietly domineering presence as a cool-headed, emotionally involved composer. Matt Damon becomes intensely terrifying. We're torn between not desiring him to be caught and being repulsed by his terrible actions. Jude Law manages to steal most of the screen time in the first half. His arrogant, money-loving, womanizing Dickie Greenleaf is handsome, charming, and potentially explosive. The film is well-conceived with unique camera angels, interesting scenery, and a startling climax. Ripley is very disturbing on multiple levels. Enthralling but disconcerting from beginning to end. For an R-rating, the content is more psychologically troubling than overly graphic. Three murders are committed. Two are shown on-screen; the other is merely implied. (We hear the victim being strangled.) The first takes place on a boat and begins as an accident. Two men get into a violent quarrel and one hits the other with an oar. Blood gushes from the wound as they engage in a violent struggle. The victim is then beat to death with the same oar. For the second murder, Ripley strikes a man over the head with a bust. The first blow is witnessed, the others unseen (he strikes below camera range). Language is mild aside from one impudent slang term for male anatomy, occasional mild abuse of deity, and four f-words. There is backside nudity and near-frontal on several occasions. There's also a shot of Dickie and Marge's lower legs in a sexual position as they fool around in the back of a boat.


Most disconcerting are the homosexual elements. Peter Smith-Kingsley projects more than a friendly interest in Tom, who gradually responds by giving Peter his house key. The final scenes imply some form of a relationship between them, but never entirely clarify the nature. The subject comes up once in conversation when a policeman inquires if Tom is gay. Peter reminds him "Officially there are no gay Italians. Makes Michelangelo and da Vinci inconvenient." The most uncomfortable scene of the film takes place during a chess game while Dickie is in the bathtub. Tom watches him get up and towel off. The movie never screams homosexuality but does its best to imply through mild remarks, friendly embraces, clever innuendoes, and occasional glances, a sexual tension at work. The movie is set in the 1950's, a time when these attentions were more innocent in appearance than they are now, but the story implies bisexual attraction on Ripley's part.


While a fascinating movie on many intellectual levels, these flaws are not without their creepiness. The most profound feeling the story gets across is Tom's complete imprisonment by his crimes. At the conclusion he is left alone, trapped in a world he has created, longing to be Tom Ripley once again yet knowing it's impossible. It's a hell of his own making, and one he well deserves. 

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