I first saw The Talented Mr Ripley during its original theatrical run. It got decent reviews and looked like an intriguing film. However, I didn’t quite expect it to be as good as it was. For my money, it was one of the best films of the year.
Since then, The Talented Mr Ripley has kind of fallen off the radar a little. It’s still a respected film, but I think it’s perceived as only a modest success - a film that is perhaps too controlled, too mannered and generally lacking in the thrills and spills associated with the thriller genre. And this is a huge shame, as the film works on many levels and deserves to be recognised as one of the best films of the 90s.
What’s so remarkable about the film, looking at it from 2011, is Matt Damon. I associate him so acutely with the Bourne films that it’s surprising to remember that he played Tom Ripley, and that he played him so well. Completely dispensing with the macho meathead persona he cultivated in the risible Good Will Hunting, he plays a gay sociopath who gets irrevocably tangled in his own web of lies.
It’s this laxity with the truth that is fundamental to Ripley. Tom is a young man who is ashamed of himself. He’s ashamed that he lives in a basement and that he works as a toilet attendant. He knows that he’s capable of much more. And it’s this shame that leads him to tell his first lie of the movie - while chatting to some people at a party, he tells them that he went to Princeton (he never went; he’s only borrowing a jacket from a friend). It’s a small untruth, but the consequences of this one lie are severe.
Lies often have a way of taking a life of their own. They grow, they develop and soon they have you trapped, which, perversely enough, is the complete opposite intention of the lie. Usually small lies are told to protect - to protect people from pain, humiliation or ridicule. In effect, they’re supposed to liberate you from your humdrum existence - to keep brutal reality at bay.
And at the beginning of the film, this is what happens to Tom. He lies about being from Princeton and all of a sudden he’s being sent to Italy by the rich shipping merchant Herbet Greenleaf to bring his wayward son Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) back to America. The wonder of this mission is beautifully visualised by the way that Ripley ascends from his wretched basement apartment to a waiting limousine on the street. This is what Ripley has been waiting for - the good life.
Now this one little lie need not damn Ripley forever more. But the trouble with lies is that they grow like weeds. Everything that is good gets obliterated by this hostile force.
Ripley’s second lie is the one that comes back to haunt him. Upon arrival in Italy, he bumps into Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy textiles heiress. She tells him how impressed she is at how light he’s travelling - he has a couple of bags while she seems to have an entire boatload. Immediately Ripley’s inferiority complex rises to the surface and he tells her that he’s Dickie Greenleaf (even though his bags are in the ‘R’ section), keeping the humiliation of his poverty and poor social standing at bay. But what makes Tom a truly talented individual is the way that he can roll with his lies. Meredith saw him retrieving his luggage from the ‘R’ stand and she also knows who the Greenleafs are. So Tom spins her a charming story about travelling under a false name in a bid to try and remain anonymous - he’s a sensitive rich type, not a braggart. This wins over Meredith, who’s also travelling under a false name - he’s already made his first friend in Italy.
Despite his penchant for lies, Ripley is also capable of making some incredibly honest insights. When Ripley sets up an ‘accidental’ meeting on a beach, Dickie is aghast at how white he is - he actually calls him grey. Ripley replies by saying it’s only an undercoat - he wants to paint over his real self; he wants to be reborn.
Ripley manages to ingratiate himself with Dickie and proceeds to add layers to his dull undercoat. Lacking any real identity of his own, or ashamed of the one he actually has, he pretends to be a lover of jazz (Dickie is a big fan) and becomes a confidant for Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dickie’s long suffering girlfriend. In short, he eventually becomes one of the family. They go to bars (Ripley is beside himself with joy when Dickie asks him to help perform a jazz song at a Naples club), they go sailing and they plan holidays together. Ripley even helps to hide Dickie’s affairs from Marge. They’re like brothers.
The only thing complicating matters is Ripley’s sexual attraction to Dickie. Ripley grows obsessed with him and their relationship begins to corrode. One excellent scene has the two playing chess together in the bathroom. Dickie’s bathing and Ripley is sitting by his side. Ripley then decides to make a risky move and says that he’s cold and asks if he can get in the bath. Dickie says no and Tom sheepishly replies that he didn’t mean that he wanted to get in the bath with Dickie still in there, even though this is totally what he wanted. And then Ripley ogles Dickie’s naked form in the mirror. From here their relationship sours - Dickie isn’t going to give Ripley the warmth he needs.
To make matters worse, Dickie’s friend Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman) turns up. He’s one of those annoying friends of a friend that can immediately see right through you - they can see your foibles, your weakness and your bullshit. All of the magic that you used on your mutual friend doesn’t work and you’re naked.
Ripley’s most humiliating exposure comes during a trip to a record store. Ripley acts like Dickie’s nagging wife and keeps telling him not to miss their train. Freddie and Dickie can only laugh at him and Ripley’s security is gone - he no longer feels like part of a family; he feels like a fool. And there’s one hilarious moment when Freddie literally dances at Ripley - with the look he gives Tom, you know that there’s only going to be one winner in this duel.
Things come to a head between Dickie and Ripley during a ride on a small boat. Ripley is mortified that Dickie is finally going to marry Marge, saying that Dickie loves him. The writing in this scene is excellent. Ripley lays himself bare but reveals himself to be jealous and clingy. He also reads far too much into certain things. Dickie is a sax player but later in the film expresses a desire to learn the drums. Of course this takes on a sexual connotation and Ripley asks Dickie to make his mind up - does he want to play sax or drums. A scuffle then ensues and Ripley ends up killing Dickie with an oar. The first strike is an attack but everything else is out of protection - Dickie is literally going to throttle him. So the murder has a strange disorientating feeling. And there’s an excellent touch at the end when, from above, you see Ripley lying with Dickie’s arm draped over him. For a brief few moments he can pretend that he has what he wants.
Jude Law is such a force in the film that it’s hard not to miss him once his character is killed off. Immediately following Dickie’s death, the film begins to drag ever so slightly. It’s still highly entertaining, but as Ripley’s web becomes more and more tangled, so the plot begins to stretch plausibility. You see, after Greenleaf’s death, Ripley pretends to be Dickie and lots of the scenes revolve around him either imitating Greenleaf or trying to convince people that he’s still alive. In a weird way Ripley becomes almost like a Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent type. Tom is the real him while Dickie is his superhero alter-ego.
As Dickie, Ripley gets to indulge in all of his deepest fantasies. These mainly revolve around him playing the piano and furnishing his overly fussy apartment. Freddie Miles actually gets things right when he turns up out of nowhere on Tom’s doorstep. He says the flat is horrible. Sure Tom might like the finer things in life but his taste borders on the Liberace. Which is kind of amusing when you consider how stylish Dickie is - it’s like Tom learned nothing from him. But then again, Dickie and Ripley are like chalk and cheese. Dickie’s style and taste is very forward thinking, while Tom harks back to the past - he’s old before his time.
Going back to Ripley’s split personality, though, there’s an excellent piece of imagery that perfectly illustrates what Minghella is trying to get across. In the reflection of a piano lid we see Ripley split in two. The further he indulges in his fantasies of being Dickie, the more he loses himself.
And strangely enough, the film actually picks up once Tom decides to permanently return to being Ripley. In the form of a man called Peter-Smith Kingsley, Ripley sees the chance of happiness. With Peter, Tom can almost be himself. The only thing that gets in the way is Tom’s secret. Ripley even says himself that he wants to give Tom the key to the basement and let him know everything, but because he knows the truth would kill the relationship, he’s damned - he’ll never be truly free.
The end to the film is darkly ironic. On a boat trip with his lover, Ripley bumps into Meredith again. Suddenly the impulsive lie he told at the beginning of the film - the one about being Dickie Greenleaf - comes back to bite him. He has two options: he can either kill Meredith or he can kill his lover - he can’t leave them both on board; the truth would eventually come out. Killing Meredith is the most obvious solution but she’s travelling with her family. Therefore, he has to kill Peter. You can see the light being snuffed out of Tom. At one point Meredith even asks him if he’s alone. He wasn’t before but he is now.
The final scene has Tom returning to his cabin, knowing he has to kill his lover. Even though Ripley is a rather wretched individual, he does always have my sympathies. He does monstrous things but he doesn’t kill because he enjoys it. He’s a slave to emotion and impulse. He’s always trying to protect himself - he’s always fighting for survival. Yes he’s to blame for digging a hole but he’s always trying to reach for the light. And then just when he sees it, it’s gone.
Before he kills him, Ripley asks Peter to tell some good things about Tom Ripley. Peter rattles off a long list and then the dialogue merges into the sounds of murder. Ripley is killing his happiness just so that he can survive; a miserable future awaits.
The final shots are a couple of masterstrokes. After the murder the camera turns around Ripley’s face. At first it’s light, but then it gradually darkens and is cast in shadow. And then from a long shot somewhere in the cabin we see a door closing on Ripley and Tom disappears. He’s going to be locked in the basement forever. His last way out has been slammed shut.