Thu. February 21
Rewind: A New Look at The Talented (Conservative?) Mr. Ripley
by Mark Judge
One of the blessings of our digital age is that when you are laid out with the flu you can have virtually any movie at your fingertips and escape your misery for a couple of hours. And so it was that I, ready to meet God and loaded up with so much Nyquil I was having a vision quest, turned on my Kindle Fire and rediscovered The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film from 1999 (it was free with Amazon Prime). It’s a very dreamy and powerful film, and seeing it so many years later revealed some interesting themes about sin, virtue, and identity. The fact that so many of the themes are not clean-cut makes it even better. Today’s films wouldn’t risk confusing audiences with anything that isn’t black-and-white.
Based on the celebrated novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley seems at first glance to be a simple take of murder. Thomas Ripley (Matt Damon), a handsome and lower-class sociopath and social climber, works his way into the life of Dickie Greenleaf, an upper-class Princeton grad who is slumming in Italy. Directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), The Talented Mr. Ripley is lushly shot and well acted, particularly a brilliant turn by Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf. Dickie is rich, charismatic, and reckless, and Ripley, who is bisexual, falls in love with him. When Ripley is rejected, he murders Dickie, hides the body, and assumes Dickie’s identity.
Watching the film so many years later, I could newly appreciate the complexities of the story. Highsmith was described by her friend, the playwright Phyllis Nagy, as “a very conservative person” who nonetheless held “some very weird and contradictory views.” That combination made for compelling drama. To casual moviegoers, The Talented Mr. Ripley may seem straightforward: establishment rich kid is conned by a smart and malevolent drifter and pays the price. Yet given deeper thought, those roles appear more fluid. Yes, Dickie is a trust-fund kid, but he is one who has abandoned all responsibility to live a bohemian life of promiscuity and jazz. In the novel, Highsmith makes fun of Dickie’s attempts at art. In this sense, it is Ripley who represents conservatism and the establishment–indeed, in the film he is an envoy from Dickie Greenleaf’s father, a wealthy New York shipping magnate. Furthermore, Damon does a wonderful job creating an empathetic character with in his portrayal of Ripley. He’s a sociopath, but he is not inhuman.
Seeing the murder scene that takes place on a boat, I realized all these years later what was going on: the murder was triggered by a wedding proposal gone wrong. Ripley has fallen in love with Dickie, and offers that he, Ripley, move to Italy so they can spend more time together. Dickie turns him down, sending Ripley into a rage. Ripley begins to itemize all of Dickie’s failings: he thinks with his pants, can’t settle on a hobby much less career, and lacks courage. Of course, Ripley is a liar and a killer. But Highsmith and the film based on her book adds some wonderful complexity to the basic ingredients. It’s a film well worth revisiting.