The Talented Mr. Ripley is the kind of film that lingers in your mind, not for what’s onscreen, but for what isn’t. Exquisitely understated, this is an instant classic, not in the sense that the word is typically applied to movies — as a synonym for masterpiece, though it is that too — but how we use the word to describe cars and clothes, embodying clean lines, subtle elegance, and a sense of timelessness.
Without ever letting the film fall to the level of pastiche, director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) turns Ripley not only into a psychological thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock but one that feels like a familiar member of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. In the best way possible, Ripley is like a film we’ve seen before but have forgotten about. Minghella adapts here a novel by an author Hitchcock also used — Patricia Highsmith — and he throws in dashes of Hitch’s twisting camerawork and screaming strings on the soundtrack. He has even replicated the hyperreal hues of 50s Technicolor. But it’s the sense, carefully cultivated by Minghella, that we already know the world depicted in Ripley — no matter how far removed from reality it is for most of us — that lets us get comfortable and complacent in it, and allows us be all the more horrified when things get ugly.
The exhilarating, carefree life of rich, young expatriates in postwar Italy is hardly a society most of us can identify with, yet it’s one that slips on cozily. Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, GATTACA) and Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow: Shakespeare in Love, A Perfect Murder) are living the high life on his father’s money, in a beautiful seaside Italian village. She’s trying to write a novel, he plays at being a jazz musician, and they both spend a lot of time boating, planning ski trips, and loafing around. Dickie is a spoiled child of privilege, no question about it, but there’s none of our contemporary attitudes about the evil of money to be found here — Dickie is a nice guy, living a nice life that we envy but never resent. I can’t remember seeing a Jude Law character smile before, and mean it, the way he does here — his Dickie is an exuberant, happy, overgrown boy. And one can’t help but see Grace Kelly in Paltrow’s Marge: the golden girl, American royalty… but, again, nice, never snooty. Marge and Dickie and their life play not like the snide 90s looking back at the ignorance-is-bliss 50s with a cocked eyebrow, but with the unexamined spirit of the blissful 50s itself.
Into Dickie and Marge’s world comes Tom Ripley (Matt Damon: Dogma, Saving Private Ryan), who claims to have gone to Princeton with Dickie, though Dickie doesn’t remember Tom. We know why that is: Tom is lying. Back in New York, Tom was a bathroom attendant at Carnegie Hall, brushing the dandruff off rich men’s tuxedos for tips; he lived in a hideous basement apartment. But a fortuitous incident led shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn: Snow Falling on Cedars, A Bright Shining Lie), exasperated more than angry with his son, to hire Tom to go to Italy and bring Dickie home. But Tom decides to insinuate his way into Dickie’s life instead, using shrewd and probably unconscious powers of manipulation to ingratiate himself with Dickie and Marge.
Tom is possibly the most sympathetic villain ever portrayed onscreen. We saw what his life was like back in New York, and we’ve been seduced by the easy living in Italy, too — no wonder Tom wants in on it. And we feel sorry for Tom when, eventually, rejection by Dickie and his friends pushes Tom to murder — as when he puts to use those unconscious powers of manipulation, Tom’s bad deeds are motivated out of necessity. We recognize that it’s a twisted necessity, and we don’t condone what he does, but, well, we can understand it.
The vicious and sudden murder is as startling to us as it probably is to Tom, though, coming just as it seemed that Tom’s newfound happiness could be invulnerable. After that point, Tom’s shoring up of his happiness is intense and at times terrifying, but we’ve always a sneaking sympathy for him, and a sadness when his one chance at true contentment is ruined by his inability to live his own life instead of the adopted life he has made for himself.
The fact that Tom is an adept impersonator leaves us with lots of unanswered, and even unasked, questions. Was it, in fact, mere coincidence that led Herbert Greenleaf to believe Tom was the kind of man who could do the job of bringing Dickie home, or did Tom plan that? Is the seemingly random tragedy early in the film — one that benefits Dickie — actually just an accident, or did Tom have something to do with that? Is Dickie’s creepy playboy pal Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Magnolia, Patch Adams) ticked off at Tom merely for edging his way into Dickie’s circle, or is it because Freddie recognizes a hidden aspect of himself in a hidden aspect of Tom?
The Talented Mr. Ripley can be enjoyed as a straight thriller, but it’s the film’s subtext, full of suspicion and open to interpretation, that makes it complicated, enthralling, and richly rewarding.