Posted: 12/31/1999


The Talented Mr. Ripley


by Jon Bastian

Perhaps The Talented Mr. Damon would be a better title…

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I have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for films of the “charming scoundrel waltzes in and pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes” sort, and The Talented Mr. Ripley is an extremely good example of the genre. Of course, setting any film in Italy is a good move. Even if the story were no good, the scenery would distract — q.v. Wings of the Dove, which was lovely to look at but that was about it. Ripley is so much more than that, and the performances all around will make you forget the scenery completely, which is a good thing.

The plot surprises here are too good to spoil, but in a nutshell, Ripley begins when the titular Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is mistaken by shipbuilding tycoon Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) as a Princeton classmate of Greenleaf’s ne’er do well son, Dickie (Jude Law). Ripley does little to dissuade Greenleaf from his mistake, and in very short order he finds himself sent to Italy on the old man’s dime in order to persuade Dickie to come back to America. Ripley soon insinuates himself into the life of Dickie and his fianceĆ©, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), becoming a best friend to both of them, and perhaps something more. It’s the something more that eventually pushes Ripley into taking on someone else’s identity, but the twists and tangles of having to juggle sets of friends, tell the right lies at the right time and accessorize appropriately slowly drive Ripley to distraction. His veil of deceit starts to close in on him — maybe. But at every step of the way, another lie (or an encouraged misunderstanding) helps Ripley squeak his way out of the grip of those who would ruin his cushy little charade… for a while.

By the way, the trailers are really selling this film all wrong, making it look like Ripley goes totally nutso and starts terrorizing everything in sight. The trailer hints at a film like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, but Ripley looks and feels more like Don’t Look Now, with the sense of dread slowly creeping up on our lead trio. The currency here is subtlety and innuendo to the extent that, for example, the simple gesture of Ripley dipping his hand into a bathtub is fraught with an electrifying erotic tension.

This is clearly Matt Damon’s movie, and he carries it away with aplomb. Ripley is a complex character, a man who has no real identity that we know of, and yet has many. A lot of what’s happening here is subtext, and Damon’s face is an amazing canvas, particularly in scenes where he’s trying really hard to hide his pain. This is a subtle movie in which what’s really going on is often carried by the acting and not the words. With very few words and a lot of nuance, Damon lets us inside of Ripley’s head even as he’s shutting the rest of the world out of it. In short, Ripley is an attractive little shit, who could probably not get away with what he pulls for very long in the real world. That Ripley is still sympathetic by the final fade out, despite everything we’ve watched him do for two and a half hours, says a lot about Damon’s skill as an actor.

I wish that a lot of Hollywood movies that try to explain everything about a character in the obligatory tragic (fill in the blank) that creates a ghost who haunts them would pay attention to the character development on display here. In the Hollywood version, our first twenty minutes would be the tragic (fill in the blank) that “explains” Ripley. In Anthony Minghella’s version, we never know for sure why Ripley does the things he does, but every step in the process is fascinating to watch.

Damon is backed by a talented supporting cast. Jude Law plays just the right degree of faux-friendly that a Europe wandering rich boy dilettante would exude, and Gwyneth Paltrow matches him with an innocence that is probably a feigned self-defensive mechanism. As Freddie Miles, Philip Seymour Hoffman (second most working character actor after Paul Giamatti) reeks of creepy grown-up fratboy whose unctiousness comes across as a threat for all the right reasons. Cate Blanchett’s American accent is a touch off, but otherwise she’s excellent as Meredith Logue, a somewhat clueless young heiress. It’s hard to believe the same woman played the tough title queen in Elizabeth, since her character here is such a creampuff.

Toss in gorgeous cinematogrphy and a rich score, and it adds up to a heady stew of beautiful people doing ugly things in glorious surroundings. A taut, suspenseful story, well drawn characters and a compelling situation are just icing on the cake.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.

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