The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

reviewed by
Stephen Graham Jones

The Talented Mr Ripley: single white male

These Pacific Heights type stories are usually told from the victims' point of view, which serves to make the 'villain' more threatening, as he could pop into any scene. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, director Anthony Minghella (working from Patricia Highsmith's novel, the first in a series of Ripley-novels) takes the alternate route, tells the story from the 'villain's' point of view. Meaning he's in just about every scene, so what 'pops up' to surprise us from time to time is his sociopathic nature. And he is sick, the kind of sick that feeds your ego simply to steal your identity. But that's his talent--the human chameleon. And, as all chameleons (and secret agents, a similar breed) must, he has no past, no history; there's no real 'explanation' for his actions, and barely any hints. Meaning of course he's the ideal blank slate upon which to impress an identity, any identity. All he needs is a mark.

Highsmith supplies one via a little Henry James/Ambassadors shuffle: Ripley (Matt Damon) bluffs his way into an assignment to travel to Italy and retrieve a rich man's son, Dickie Greenleaf, (Jude Law) living in some particularly Edenic niche of Italy with Marge, (Gwyneth Paltrow) his girlfriend. So yes, it's a guy, a girl, and a garden spot. All we need now is the snake: enter Ripley, ingratiating himself into their confidences, living with them, studying them. Initially it's all about adoration, but that quickly escalates into jealousy, and from jealousy it's an easy step up to the conclusion that they--or, Dickie--isn't really deserving of this decadent, expatriate lifestyle. Or, at least isn't as deserving, which, to Ripley--already operating under the Raskolnikov moral code (if I can do it, I should)--serves as all the moral compulsion/permission he needs. When the circumstances permit, and as the trailer tells us, he becomes Dickie, assumes Dickie's identity, which is where The Talented Mr. Ripley really gets fun.

We did love Jack Tripper's antics after all--always pretending to be one, two, or more people at once. Ripley's doing essentially the same thing, only now, when the coincidences start piling up against him, he simply kills his way out. Anything but get caught. And he does have some Flashman (George MacDonald Fraser's 'Ripley') type luck, but not too much. Meaning it's all credible, more or less, even as the body count rises. Interestingly, too, Minghella, instead of having his 'hero' (Ripley) be flat out bad, draws him as strangely driven, each time torturing himself for what he 'has' to do, etc. Which is a nice touch, allows us a little sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic character, enough that we even want him to get out of each scrape alive, by his wits alone (per Bond). It's impressive, or, impressively written, and never quite gets stale or overly predictable. The last twenty minutes even tease us with a Clay Pigeons ending, by introducing a private investigator (Philip Baker Hall, still Seinfeld's library cop) and a run of particularly bad luck for Ripley. For him, though, there's always an answer, a proven solution to anything: just start killing. And the thing is, we kind of want him to. His most attractive quality, after all, is his sociopathic nature, so the more it surfaces, the better. With Silence of the Lambs, what we really wanted was more Hannibal. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, we get it.

(c) 1999 Stephen Graham Jones,

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