A Trip Back To: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

By Christian DiMartino

There’s something about Ripley.

One of the most fascinating elements in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is the immediate approach to the film’s central character, Tom Ripley. Ripley has been portrayed in film before, and there are multiple novels written by the late, great Patricia Highsmith (The Price of Salt, a.k.a. CarolStrangers on a Train). Here he is played by Matt Damon, riding off the success of Good Will Hunting.

The film opens with an introduction to Ripley, a scene that manages to kind of set the tone for the rest of the film. When we first meet Ripley, he is a piano tuner who is spotted at a party by one Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn). Mr. Greenleaf notices that Ripley is wearing a familiar jacket- one with an association to Princeton- and immediately assumes that Ripley must know the man’s son, Dickie (Jude Law). We, the audience, are given the indication that not only does Ripley not know Dickie, but he also didn’t go to Princeton, but Ripley doesn’t deny the assumption. Why is that?

Part of the intrigue of The Talented Mr. Ripley lies in the way that when we meet Tom Ripley, it’s smack dab in the middle of his story. We know nothing of his actual upbringing, and as the film goes on, more and more is revealed about him. This, I assume, was the point, because not only does it add to the unpredictability of Ripley, but it also works as a portrayal of a man who doesn’t know his own identity, so he assumes others. Or has Ripley been involved in other situations like this? Is this his first rodeo, or was he waiting for an opportunity like this one?

It had been a few years since I last saw The Talented Mr. Ripley. I really liked it the first time I saw it, but this time I found myself fully loving it. Here is a film so cleverly, intricately plotted that you can hardly take your eyes off of it. It has a flaw or two, but I dare anyone to sit there and say they weren’t involved. It’s a film with moments that linger long after the credits roll.

Anyways, Ripley is asked by Mr. Greenleaf to travel to Italy, find his son Dickie, and bring him home. Ripley hasn’t the slightest clue who any of these people are, but he of course doesn’t turn down an all-expenses covered trip to Italy. Arriving in Italy, more groundwork for the plot is laid out whenever he meets Meredith (Cate Blanchett, a little underused here). Upon meeting her, he introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf. Why does he do this? The last time I saw this, I was under the impression that he traveled to Italy with a certain agenda, but this time I feel as if that is not so. One may assume that it is simply easier to get by as a Greenleaf (a family of wealth and prestige) than a Ripley.

Now, from here on out, I find myself back and forth on whether or not I want to reveal major plot details. Seeing as the film is currently streaming on HBO Max, I will do my best to tiptoe around them. After Ripley and Meredith part ways, Ripley searches for Dickie and quickly finds him. By means of… well, lying, Ripley bumps into Dickie on the beach, introduces himself as a former Princeton classmate, and soon Dickie and Ripley, along with Dickie’s girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) strike a friendship. A strange friendship, at that. Dickie initially shows interest, but eventually finds Tom to be rather strange. Why?

Well, Tom kinda sorta insinuates that he wants to share a bath with Dickie. Not to mention, Dickie walks in on Tom wearing his clothes and what not. There is a lot of homosexual tension at play in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it can make for some really uncomfortable moments. Upon previous viewings, I was under the impression that Ripley went to Italy with an endgame in mind. This time though, I do not see that as the case. Here is a guy who is simply making things up as he goes along because he doesn’t know how to handle himself, but he also happens to be a genius with the gift and power to make it up as he goes along. I will not dive into the major elements of the plot, for your sake, but the plot heavily focuses on mistaken identities, secrets and murder. But I will say that I looked at Tom Ripley in a different light this time, and it made for an even more intriguing experience this go around.

Before, I found Ripley slimy, cunning, and creepy. In many ways, he still is. Yet this time I found myself with a little more admiration and pity for him. Ripley is such a smooth (but yes also awkward) operator that, despite the events that unfold, I found myself secretly rooting for him to get away with it. Not that he is a good person, and his crimes are inexcusable, but yet also it feels as if everyone around him is unusually rude and harsh. There comes a scene, for example, whenever Dickie confronts Tom and tells him that he’s not only relieved that Tom is leaving, but that he also finds him creepy and boring. Ripley may be creepy, but at the same time, maybe he doesn’t realize that he is being creepy. We don’t really tap into Ripley’s psyche until about the end of the film- a fact that I’m perfectly okay with- but Ripley comes across as a man with a lack and a longing for identity, and perhaps he’s unaware that his actions are bizarre.

Damon has said that this is his favorite movie that he’s ever worked on. To counter that, I believe this to be Damon’s finest performance to date. A character that used to give me chills, and still does, and yet one that I also cannot help but admire. Paltrow also gets some very strong moments. Blanchett, as I mentioned before, is underused here but she can do no wrong. Law received an Oscar nomination for this film, and for many years I had forgotten why. Not this time. Law makes quite the splash in a somewhat limited screentime.

The film is richly entertaining, above all else. It has a story that is easy to get yourself caught up in, and the way in which Minghella (who also wrote the screenplay) puts the puzzle together is addictive. Mingella, who died in 2008, was a real craftsman. From The English Patient to Cold Mountain, here was a filmmaker who made the kind of movies that the Academy would flock to… and yet he also always managed to make them more than just Oscar bait.

I will say, if there’s a flaw, it’s that the plot can seem a little convenient. Convenient in the way that, no matter where Ripley goes, whether it be Rome, Venice, you name it, he constantly finds himself bumping into the same three or four people, as if these places are small. Without this though, there may not be a movie. I used to see The Talented Mr. Ripley as a really good movie, one that entertained but also left me feeling somewhat cold. It’s a better film than I remember though, one that did leave me cold, but only because I was so chilled. The final moments of this film, in particular, cast a particularly haunting spell that is difficult to shake.

Streaming on HBO Max

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