Rearview Mirror: “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

Twenty years later, we reconsider the deceit, intrigue, and blame at the center of Anthony Minghella’s film.  

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2019. I’m so happy you’re here.


I first saw The Talented Mr. Ripley in 2013, when I was in Italy, and my travel companion suggested we watch it because it’s about Americans vacationing in Italy. In fact, my companion was in Italy on my family’s dime; my mom, my stepdad, and I were all visiting Milan and Venice and I’d invited my friend along with the mutual understanding that we’d be paying because she couldn’t. It was hardly the swanky five-star lifestyle depicted in the movie, but still. Like Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), she was taking a Eurotrip paid for by the family of her friend from school. 

Now, before you get suspicious, neither my friend nor I committed any murders on that trip. In fact, we lived together for two years afterward; this past September I was a bridesmaid in her wedding. It is possible for two people from differing socio-economic upbringings to have a close and healthy friendship! But the movie is so well-done that its bloody conclusion feels somehow inevitable. Watching it, you find yourself believing textiles heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) when she says that the wealthy are only comfortable around the wealthy, and murder starts to look like the unfortunately high price for that comfort. It tricks you, somehow, into believing that Ripley’s lies and violent outbursts aren’t chaotic like jazz but rather meticulously planned and elegantly executed, like classical piano.

It tricks you, somehow, into believing that Ripley’s lies and violent outbursts aren’t chaotic like jazz but rather meticulously planned and elegantly executed, like classical piano.

He fools those around him and he fools us, too. Ripley willingly states that his skills are forgery, impersonation, and deceit, but clearly his best asset is his ability to make people laugh. It’s how he endears himself to strangers and deflects their questions. And the film shows the Greenleaf family to be just callous enough that we don’t totally hate Tom for murdering Dickie (Jude Law). After all, what kind of father sends their son’s friend to Italy to bring him home to America? Go there yourself, or better yet, cut off your son’s allowance if you want him to grow up so bad! And as for Dickie, doesn’t he commit the first murder of the movie when he refuses to help his pregnant Italian mistress who drowns herself? 

But there’s an artful balance; every time you start to think that these idiot rich people deserve what’s coming, there’s a moment to remind you that, no, it’s actually very, very much the opposite of fairness to steal from generous strangers and then murder them when they get wise to your lies. The central dilemma of homosexuality, too, tugs the viewer both ways: Ripley and Smith-Kingsley and Miles have been forced into such an awful position by society, forced to live a double life no matter what they choose to do with it, that a certain degree of deceit is forgivable. But even violent, lazy Dickie Greenleaf deserves friends who aren’t constantly lying about their attraction to him.

The movie is on an even keel, paced deliberately, like the novel. It never really becomes a thriller, and there’s no frenetic chase through the streets as in the climax of The Two Faces of January (2014), another adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story about Americans in Europe trying to cover up a murder. Instead, director Anthony Minghella takes his time layering on the plot elements, letting everything unfold naturally, so it could be the ’50s, or the ’90s, or today, and it’s all just happening in its natural order, not rushed, because we are on vacation.

But the movie does show its age on the actors’ faces, and it’s somehow for the better. Is it possible that The Talented Mr. Ripley is even better now than when it was released twenty years ago? The all-star cast—Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman—delivers uniformly superb performances, but back in 1999 they were still just talented young beautiful people. Today, it’s almost painful to look at them. Blanchett is a baby! Law has all that hair! Damon could be a different person. Paltrow’s never been so vulnerable before or since. And Hoffman—Jesus, now that he’s gone for real, watching him die young is almost too spooky.

Though the film is set in the 1950s and based on a Patricia Highsmith novel from that decade, the story of a murderous social-climbing scammer fits right into the 2019 narrative, somewhere between Hustlers and Anna Delvey. The comparisons are almost too many to name. Ripley is Clark Rockefeller, impersonating a member of high society no matter the cost; Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) is Olivia Jade Giannulli, sent to a prestigious school by his parents despite his total disinterest in academia. At one point, watching Ripley and Peter Smith Kingly (Jack Davenport) navigate the Italian judicial system, I was even reminded of Amanda Knox, the college student who found herself on trial for murder when all she was ever guilty of was acting a little weird in front of the cops and not knowing Italian well enough to realize she needed a better lawyer.

Blanchett is a baby! Law has all that hair! Damon could be a different person. Paltrow’s never been so vulnerable before or since. And Hoffman—Jesus, now that he’s gone for real, watching him die young is almost too spooky.

Watching the movie again, I found myself keeping a mental tally of which of Ripley’s lies would be easier and which would be harder to get away with today. On the one hand, it’d be impossible for him to get away with saying he’s someone he’s not; Meredith could just check Instagram to know that the real Dickie Greenleaf had a different face. On the other hand, if Ripley could get ahold of Dickie’s cell phone, he could tell Marge all kinds of lies without going through the hassle of copying a signature and mailing postcards from another town. With a little Photoshop and the right filter, I could reasonably trick my friends into believing that I am, at this very moment, sitting on a boat off the coast of Genoa. But it would take a lot more than scratching up a photo to convince customs to let me into the country on someone else’s passport.

With all this in mind, what’s there to make of the recently announced remake starring Andrew Scott? The Hot Priest from Fleabag will play Ripley in a Showtime series based on Highsmith’s novels. Without knowing much about the project, it’s exciting that Showtime will apparently be covering the character’s ongoing adventures (the movie only makes it through the action of the first novel). And then there’s the question of how gay Ripley will be. His possible homosexuality (or bisexuality) is subtextual in the novels, but pretty obvious in the movie. And Scott, unlike Damon, is actually gay. Though I personally find who an actor dates off-screen doesn’t influence my enjoyment of their work on-screen, it would certainly be progressive in terms of representation to have a gay actor portraying a complex, queer antihero in a prestige drama.

A closeted gay man who turns murderous was problematic in 1999, and it still is today, but in light of the recent waves of scammers in the news, that’s not how I interpreted Ripley’s story. Sex was just one of the boundaries Ripley was playing with. He wanted as much money and intimacy and attention as he could get, and he was willing to lie and kill to keep it all from being taken away. But maybe you’ll have a different read on the story, and maybe you’ll find something else that should be explored in the series. Please go find out for yourself by watching this movie again. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s magnificently done—and dear god, the costumes! FL

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