By Ted Baldwin
Talented Mr. Ripley
Arguably the best film of 1999 (which but for shameless Oscar grabbing tendencies should go to Arlington Road, SFAIAC*).
Ripley is a dark and disturbing, very disturbing film.
I sat on this review for a week, pondering the nuances of Ripley.
First of all, if gay themes bother you, don't bother to see this. It won't make you feel any better, and there is no point riling yourself all up.
Second, aside from not telling us about the gay stuff, the commercials misled us into thinking the Talented Mr. Ripley is a well-thought-out rip off/caper flick, where a man assumes another man's identity for money and position. No no no no no. This film is a finely textured mosaic of obsessions and happenstance, personal intrigues and chance meetings - a frolic, a lark, a turn of the lip and tilt of the head away from Wilde humoresque, a full at-your-throat expose of decadence, cruelty and dispassion.
If you intend to see it, see it. What follows is a lengthy discussion of the import of what you will/have seen.
Tom Ripley is hired by the Father of a young man playboying around Italy to go there and fetch him home - convince him to return to Mummy and Daddy. Tom gets the job after being mistaken for a Princeton Man - wearing the jacket and all, you know. On his way there he is already masquerading as Dickie GreenLeaf, the boy he's being sent after, and he meets people who will be his final undoing. Fates are cruel - as is foreshadowing...
In Italy Tom scouts out the situation, and insinuates himself into the target's life. Making himself seductively available to Dickie and Marge, they befriend each other - but Tom is manipulating them, gaining their confidence.
Shortly, however, Tom cannot resist telling Dickie the truth, laying bare the mission in a startlingly accurate impression of Dickie's Old Man. He gains more of Dickie's trust, and then the fun begins. Dickie starts to manipulate Tom. Romancing him. Seducing him. Educating him. Tom is a "project".
Dickie is taken with the talented Mr. Ripley, spending all of his time with him. This puts out his fiance, Marge, but to Dickie, and ever increasingly to Tom, they have formed a bond. This is all play stuff for Dickie, but it is serious business to Tom.
Marge takes a back seat to Tom, who has never been the object of anyone's full attention. And more than just wanting Dickie's life, his money, his position, he falls in love.
Dickie is a ruthless brute, unfortunately, and his pattern is to go through one person after another, using them up, then moving on. He is spoiled, unmoved by human emotions not directly serving his immediate interests.
This callousness drives the conflict between Tom and Dickie. When Freddy arrives, another hopeless lout with more money that personality, his jealousy of the Tom-Dickie thing spells doom for Tom's love. It is horrifying to watch this evil lump winnow his way between Tom and Dickie. He is little more than an ill-tempered, grunting aristocrat who has the "smart" ideas, the right tastes, and proper fashion sense. And like Dickie, devoid of humanity. He is rolling over everything he disdains, and he disdains Tom.
Tom's undoing comes when Dickie is in the bath, playing Tom a game of Chess. Tom asks to get in the bath - caught off guard, or perhaps not believing Tom has the guts to press for more of a relationship, Dickie shuns him. But true to nature, Dickie cannot help but prick-tease Tom a little, suggesting he could be had. Tom is in love, though, and wants something honest. He is cruelly dismissed, scorned, and from that point on, Dickie begins excising him from his life. Dickie is not about honest relationships, and Tom knew it. He just has not been trained in the art of dispassion the way Dickie has.
It is during the good-bye breakup, when Dickie is charting his new life without Tom right in front of him, heaping on abuse, that the murder happens. And it is more of a self-defense maneuver than the premeditated one hinted at in previews.
After the killing, Tom lays in the boat with Dickie's body, curled up next to him as though asleep together. In shock. Destroyed as surely as Dickie. This belies premeditation. It was passion, something Dickie really did not understand.
And so the beauty of this tale goes. Dickie, heartless tormentor, is killed by someone that would have loved him totally and selfishly his whole life. And Tom gets his wish in that process, becoming Dickie. Tom has desperately said that it is "better to be a phony somebody than a real nobody". In acquiring the mannerisms, tastes, talents and persona of Dickie, he stripped himself of humanity. In the poetic imagery of the film, Tom traded his classical identity for modern jazz. He lost his soul, and Tom cannot navigate without one.
Tom declines from there. To keep his secret safe, he registers in two hotels, keeping the wires busy with notes to his alter egos, lunch dates with himself, and more. To all intents and purposes both Tom and Dickie are in town. This Box and Cox play is successful for a while, until Freddy begins hunting for Dickie in earnest, and finds only Tom.
As the new Dickie, Tom reverts to his old habits, and accompanies a woman to the opera. In that moment, unbeknownst to him, he displays more taste and class that the real Dickie ever dould have. It was what he was, the real Tom, that had value, not the shallow, wanton, pretend life of the high rolling Dickie. But this is so unlike Dickie, that people start to suspect.
Tom relies on people that don't know the real Dickie to spread the word of his exploits, keeping him alive. It is a very complex web that all starts to work. Also, considering that this is happening in the 1950's, with no tv or fax or cell phones, it is easier to imagine the ploy could work.
Freddy figures it out though, and Tom kills him. Brutally. But not deservedly, no matter how much you hate the worm. Prior to this point, Tom could have been salvaged. Unlike Dickie, controlled, calm, cool, Tom's self interest is unbridled by real family money, untempered by breeding, or social position. Whereas Dickie might wish someone dead, or perhaps even hire out, Tom is a "hands-on" man. Dickie once berated him for cleaning up the apartment - now Tom is cleaning up for real.
When the police begin to hound "Dickie" after finding Freddy's body, Tom is in danger of being found out by Marge. When she discovers Dickies rings in Tom's stuff, he needs to clean her up as well, and so it goes.
Believe me, I have only scratched the surface of this complicated and beautifully acted story of excess, indulgence and self-interest.
Midway through this I started thinking, this is the best film of the year. The last film I felt this way about strongly was "Unforgiven". True here too, that 'some people need killin'. It may even get it, though I want to favor Arlington Road just because they released Ripley at Christmas to get into the 1999 Oscars and beat out others.
Written and directed by Anthony "The English Patient" Minghella, it is a lavish production, appropriate to the period in pace and description. No doubt it will win.
Matt Damon is utterly believable as the charmingly disarming mimic, Tom Ripley. Jude Law is disgusting as the bi-playboy with a deep and icy mean streak. His pal Freddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), belching pat put-downs through lazy lips, is exactly what Dickie is - sans the suave exterior. Without the packaging, Ripley would never have fallen, and that is part of what this is about.
The long-suffering girlfriends are icing on the cake (Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett). Tom mistreats his "girl" Meredith, a clone of Marge, the same way Dickie mistreated Marge, but for different reasons - ironically more of his "becoming" Dickie. When Tom finally starts a gay relationship, he is no longer capable of being what he wants to be - a true lover and faithful friend. Tom has been tainted for all time by the selfishness and worthlessness of Dickie Greenleaf.
Callous disregard. It is torturous. Evil. And it begs attention be paid it.
Towards the end, Tom is discussing his life, and how he thinks people don't plan for bad stuff to happen. And when it does, you still have to live your life. He is unhooked from the strata of humanity - adrift in a sea of self pity and shallow confidence, where he is nothing without the strength of his beloveds. But the strength he gathers destroys them.
He is a phoney somebody, entrusted, isolated, that perfection of Dickie mirrored in Tom's eyes. Killing those who love him literally, as Dickie did figuratively. And this film upends the ideas about beauty, class, and wealth we believe to our inner core.
|* So Far As I Am Concerned.||Click a pic above and see a nicely developed website for Mr. Ripley.|