“Forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody” — these are the primary talents of the title character of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And time and time again, he puts them to devious, deadly use.
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) never intended for things to turn out like they did.
“Whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person,” he asks as much as says.
It begins with a borrowed jacket and a somewhat innocent case of mistaken identity. When Tom subs for a friend to play piano at a party, Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), who made his fortune building ships, erroneously takes him for a former Princeton classmate of his son, Dickie (Jude Law). Greenleaf father and son have a rocky relationship, and Dickie has taken to living in Italy with his fiancée, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Herbert is quick to recruit Tom, offering him $1,000 — a healthy sum on money in 1958 — to go to Italy and persuade his son to come home. Happy to have an escape from the doldrums of his life in New York City, Tom accepts.
Staging a “surprise” meeting on the beach of a seaside Italian town, Tom — playing the role of Dickie’s old classmate — quickly charms Dickie and Marge, eventually warming up to the point that he admits his lie and the real reason he’s in Italy. Conspiring with Dickie against his father further endears Tom to Dickie.
Friendship turns to infatuation, then obsession for Tom, which is trouble when Dickie tires of him and starts spending more time with his suspicious friend, Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s the lifestyle that Tom craves; he yearns to be Dickie even more than he wants to be with him.
“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” Tom eventually confesses, and he gets his wish. In fact, he starts impersonating Dickie before they’ve even met, introducing himself as Dickie Greenleaf to socialite Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) while collecting his luggage after the voyage to Italy. This causes problems later when both Meredith and Marge resurface in Rome.
Filmed mostly in Italy, “Ripley” is a gorgeous, sun-drenched film that, due to the strength of its narrative and actors, avoids coming off as a travelogue despite the inclusion of many historic sites in Rome.
Based on a 1955 novel by Patricia Highsmith, which also was adapted and released with the title “Purple Noon” in 1960, and written for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, this is an intelligent, unsettling thriller, Hitchcockian in the way it allows us to identify with — maybe even root for — the undoubtedly evil Tom Ripley. There is an element of “he had it coming” for Dickie, given his sudden, callous dismissal of Tom, his infidelity and often cold treatment of Marge. But what about the others caught in Tom’s wake?
Damon plays Ripley as a man who’s dreamed of being someone else for so long that he has no personality of his own. He comes alive only when he’s playing at being another person. As Dickie, he gains fashion sense, loses the Coke-bottle glasses, styles his hair and turns on the charm with ease. As Tom, he’s a lonely young man wandering the streets of Rome in a corduroy jacket. Back home in New York, he’s an attendant in the men’s room of an opera house. In Italy, he’s jumping on stage to perform at a jazz club.
While Damon’s star-making turn came two years prior in “Good Will Hunting,” “Ripley” is the movie that revealed his depth and range as an actor. Three years later, “The Bourne Identity” made him an action star, but he has continued to mix in the occasional challenging role among his many crowd-pleasers.
“Ripley” also offered a breakthrough role for Law, who draws the audience’s attention as surely as Dickie enraptures those around him. He just as easily earns our enmity when he turns on Tom, even if he’s not entirely unjustified in wanting to put some distance between himself and his clingy new friend. Law earned the first of his two Oscar nominations here.
Minghella, who won an Academy Award for directing “The English Patient” (1996), went on to direct only two more features after “Ripley” — reteaming with Law for both “Cold Mountain” (2003) and “Breaking and Entering” (2006) — before passing away in 2008.
Opening on Christmas Day 1999, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was a hit with audiences and critics, with a worldwide box office gross of nearly $130 million on a $40 million budget and an 83% “fresh” rating on the Tomatometer. And though it came up empty on the big night, the movie scored five Oscar nominations — for best supporting actor (Law), adapted screenplay, art direction/set decoration, costume design and original score.
It’s the kind of smart, adult-oriented thriller Hollywood isn’t much interested in producing anymore. This kind of picture survives mostly in arthouses now, or maybe you will stumble across something like it while browsing Netflix. You could say the same for most of the great films of its era.
1999 was an especially creative and daring year for mainstream cinema, the apex of power for the indie directors who took the film world by storm earlier in the decade. Studios put their trust — and wallets — behind visionary filmmakers who created art that continues to speak two decades later. And we — movie fans — are the real winners, for we can revisit these stunning achievements whenever we want, to find something new and thought-provoking, or simply be entertained by true masters of their craft.
Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. 139 minutes.
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