The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn, Philip Baker Hall.
1999 135 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, brief nudity, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 28, 1999.
Anthony Minghella's last picture, "The English Patient," was lush and visually beautiful, but its attempts at emotional catharsis and intimately drawn characters fell flat, due to its ultimate unevenness. Based on the first in a series of novels by Patricia Highsmith, in which the protagonist (and antagonist) happens to be Thomas Ripley, a sociopath, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" dilutes Minghella's past problems to bring us one of the most challenging and thought-provoking thrillers in recent memory. A film in which we follow a character who just so happens to be mentally unhinged, it also holds the ability to genuinely surprise because we grow to, on some level, like Tom, and even at times when he does awful things to other people, it usually seems perversely just.
The ball gets rolling in New York City in 1958, when a man (James Rebhorn) persuades Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who says he is a Princeton graduate, to travel to Europe and persuade his rebellious son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), to return home with him and leave behind his excessively luxurious lifestyle. Tom agrees, and is soon in Italy, becoming pals with Dickie, who starts hanging out with him and taking him to jazz clubs, even after he discovers Tom's true purposes for the trip, and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Things go well for a while, but Tom gradually becomes more and more infatuated with Dickie, to the point where he has the capabilities to do anything if he can't have him.
One may read the plot synopsis and think to themselves, "been there, done that," but they would be wrong, as I haven't even begun to discuss the many further plot developments, all of which come together to create a complex and absolutely electrifying motion picture. Unlike most thrillers, which follow a rather cliched pattern of rising tension before a "fight to the finish" climactic battle, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" soaks you into the story slowly, but surely, until you are completely involved in the goings-on. The fact that the film's first hour is rather deceptive only aids in the first violent outburst being all the more startling, and the death at hand oddly justified.
Matt Damon, in his first satisfying role since 1997's "Good Will Hunting," is perfectly cast as the likable, yet occasionally threatening Tom Ripley. Tom, a confused young man who isn't sure where his life is going or who he should even be, decides that impersonating others' identities might make more sense, as he says, "I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody." Tom is obviously a conflicted person who truthfully believes he is a nobody, and we naturally care about his feelings, despite watching him commit crime after crime. Damon is a boyishly good-looking actor who, here, also believably hints at a darker side behind his winning exterior. This is a top-notch character for Damon, and an intelligent career move, as he really does need another movie that, like "Good Will Hunting," shows off his refined acting skills.
Jude Law is also very good as Dickie Greenleaf, a man that can be kind and caring, and the next minute be cold and hateful. "There are those times when Dickie makes you feel like you are the only person in the world besides him," Marge tells Tom. "He's so good at it. That's why people love him so." Tom is drawn to Dickie, even when he isn't being a very nice person, and it is the attributes of Law that help to pull this tricky role off. Dickie is so constantly alluring and fascinating that one can wholeheartedly understand why Tom would be won over so much by him.
The two central female roles are somewhat underwritten, but the actresses that Minghella has cast are so extraordinary that they make the characters their own. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Marge, is somewhat limited in the confines of her role, but is touching and sympathetic, nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, as Meredith Logue, a beautiful American debutante who meets Tom at the train station when they first arrive in Italy, and keeps bumping into him, adds wonderful flavor to her character. Blanchett may have even less screen time than Paltrow, but in many ways, is far more memorable. Meredith grows to care for Tom, even though she thinks he is Dickie, based on what he told her at the train station, and this confusion causes problems later in the picture, especially in a scene of extreme technical beauty and calculation, in which she meets Marge and her friend, Peter (Jack Davenport), at a restaurant. Each one is waiting for Tom Ripley, but Meredith believes he is Dickie, whom Marge has been desperately trying to find since he, more or less, disappeared from her life after taking a trip with Tom. This may sound more complicated and difficult to understand than it actually is. Not to worry; Minghella knows how to toy with the expectations of his audience, and succeeds brilliantly in this respect.
Rounding out the major players are Philip Seymour Hoffman, despicable as Dickie's snotty-nosed friend, Freddie; and Jack Davenport, as Marge's friend, Peter, who grows a liking to Tom. Davenport, an actor I don't believe I've ever seen before, has extraordinary chemistry with Damon in their scenes together, and appropriately comes off as a pure romantic as Peter.
Precise and texturally detailed in both its story and the sumptuous cinematography of the Italian cities, beaches, and countryside, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a somewhat old-fashioned suspense film that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of. Minghella clearly showed how good of a director he might be in the right situation with "The English Patient," and with "The Talented Mr. Ripley," he has hit his full stride. This a stunner of a thriller, both mature in its writing, also by Minghella, and provocative in its inclinations and plot twists, which always feel natural, rather than manipulative--two refreshing qualities you almost never find in the same film nowadays. A winner.
©1999 by Dustin Putman