|The Talented Mr. Ripley
USA, 1999. Rated R. 139 minutes.
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow,
Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James
Rebhorn, Sergio Rubini, Philip Baker Hall, Celia Weston, Stefania Rocca
|Review by Dana Knowles.
om Ripley (Matt Damon) is a nobody who yearns to be a somebody. He's a working-class chameleon with highbrow tastes. Fortune smiles upon Tom in the form of an offer from industrial magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), who mistakes Tom for a friend of his son Dickie's, and hires him to travel to Italy and pursuade Dickie to return to New York. Quite a task, considering that Tom does not--in truth--know, nor has he ever met Dickie. Still, the offer is too good to pass up, and soon Tom is travelling first class on a luxury liner to Europe. He knows practically nothing about his prey, except that Dickie is a rabid jazz fan and an alum of Princeton who now lolls about Italy in hedonistic splendor. Tom does what he can to study up, though... immersing himself in jazz until he can recognize individual artists and pieces, and stalking Dickie upon arrival in order to determine as much as he can about his habits. And thus begins Tom's soon-to-become-deadly process of assimilation into a world that has no place for the real him.
Impeccably staged, shot, and edited, Minghella's low-key psychological thriller unfolds gracefully and intriguingly, especially during the first half, as Tom infiltrates the world of Dickie (Jude Law) and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Though he claims that his greatest talents are forgery, lying, and impersonation, Tom most impressively excels at manipulation... finding the right thing to say or do in each moment in order to secure or buttress his position among the fold. Playing cleverly off of Dickie's twin passions--his love for jazz and his loathing for his father's expectations--Tom endeavors to become both bohemian soul-mate and indispensible ally to Dickie's refuge. And for awhile, it works. Trouble comes in the form of Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a true insider to Dickie's world, whose resistance to manipulation is as powerful as it is outspoken. He spots the absurdity and fraudulence of Tom's presence immediately, rocking the boat and rattling Tom's sense of security. In addition, he captures Dickie's attention, leaving Tom isolated and restless... his only ally the wistfully conciliatory Marge, who knows a thing or two about being ignored.
There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Its portrait of the insular clubbiness of wealth and class is equal parts appalling and alluring. Set among the pre-jet-set jet-set, there is little or no inclusion of the social constraints that so often color narrative presentations of the upper-class lifestyle. Dickie and his friends live in sumptuous luxury and have unfettered freedom, indulging each whim as it arises. And it's precisely this element of their lives that closes the social circle and keeps others out... these are people with no tolerance for discomfort, because they've never had to learn to endure it. Tom's days are inevitably numbered, because Herbert cannot be strung along forever. Once the outside funding dries up, Tom's lack of resources and dependence on Dickie will shift the dynamic, making him a parasite, and thus an unwanted discomfort. There are a couple of amusing devices used to convey this, one in the person of Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), a lonely heiress who confesses that she only feels comfortable with other people who have vast amounts of money and despise it. The other is a planned ski trip from which Tom is ultimately excluded, because it would simply be too uncomfortable to bring along a person who doesn't know how to ski. The message is clear and rings true: individual personality is meaningless in this world. What matters is that you have the resources and the mindset to play the game without disrupting the other players. Tom's fundamental error is his belief that Dickie will become attached to him as an individual... a dreadful miscalculation that results in violent confrontation and murder.
The performances in Ripley are uniformly good. Rebhorn makes a couple of short--but memorable--appearances as a convincingly wishy-washy patriarch who can't quite figure out that simply cutting off Dickie's money would accomplish his goals. Blanchett is underused, but effective as an insider who is a bit of an outsider. Philip Baker Hall steals the movie temporarily when he shows up briefly as a private detective. Paltrow is adequate in the underwritten role of Marge, but fails to convey any sense of organic character. By contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman has far less screen time than Paltrow, but creates a fully-formed Freddie Miles in spite of that fact. We know exactly who this guy is from the first time he opens his mouth... now that's acting! Equally marvelous is Jude Law as Dickie... an irresistably charismatic and beautiful narcissist who runs alternately hot and cold toward everyone whenever it suits him. Law's pitch-perfect American accent only eludes him when he erupts in anger, and even then it's mostly intact. He's a perfect Dickie for this version of Tom Ripley to envy, because he's not just any somebody... he's the somebody whose attention and affection is sought by all of the other somebodys in his circle. For a man like Ripley, Dickie is the Mt. Everest of coveted identities.
Damon is very good as Tom, but this conception of the character and his yearnings robs the second half of the film of its edge and intrigue. I haven't read the novel, but Minghella has certainly flip-flopped aspects of the Dickie and Tom characters as they were portrayed in René Clement's earlier filmic adaptation, Purple Noon. In that version, Tom is stunningly beautiful and charismatic, while Dickie is more straightforwardly a creature of class and privilege, but reasonably unremarkable otherwise. This creates an interesting dynamic between them, emphasizing Tom's desire to be someone who is both less and more than he is already. It also underlines Tom's own narcissism and sense of entitlement, as if God has mistakenly given to Dickie what was really meant for Tom. In Minghella's version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom's visible self-loathing eradicates any sense of narcissism or entitlement in his actions, as if he would content himself to merely belong to Dickie's circle, and is forced to act abominably when ousted. Essentially, Damon is asked to create a character whose psychological weaknesses make his actions less fascinating than they should be. In addition, this version of Tom is a bit inconsistent with the intent of the character in a general way. He doesn't really want to be anybody else, though the film implies that he does. What he seems to want is to be let in the door as a fraudulent version of himself, but ultimately accepted as Tom. Though left unspoken for the most part, this clearly conveyed fact makes the ending seem bafflingly incongruous with his psychology... as if another version of Tom is being imposed on the one we've gotten to know.
None of this is Damon's fault. He delivers a subtle and careful performance that serves Minghella's objectives from scene to scene. But because Tom's character is the center of the film's journey of self-discovery, Damon may be unfairly blamed by those who find the whole to be less than satisfying. Standing on its own terms as a character-study and thriller, Ripley is engaging and interesting on many levels. But by opting to make Tom Ripley more transparently needy and overtly sympathetic, Minghella robs the character of the sociopathic indifference that would make his actions chill us to the bone. As cold-hearted as his ability to kill for convenience may seem on the surface, it's hard to believe that this Tom Ripley values himself above those that he disposes of. Thus, though the killings he enacts for immediate self-preservation are somewhat believable, his final act of treachery plays as a scripted plot point more than an organically integrated act of selfishness. The truth is, this Tom Ripley would have accepted his astonishing good luck and found a way to be happy with it. The Tom Ripley who wouldn't (or couldn't) have accepted such good fortune was never in the film to begin with. Instead of a cold, charismatic man who is consumed with his own needs, we're given a bright but bumbling nebbish who scrambles to escape the messes he makes for himself. Sad, perhaps... but creepy? Not really. Beautifully crafted from start to finish, The Talented Mr. Ripley is what it is--a sad story about a pathologically insecure man--and it definitely succeeds on that level. But I can't help feeling it could have been much, much more.