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The Talented Mr. Ripley is worth the panic it induces
Film review

The Talented Mr. Ripley is worth the panic it induces

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 4 min. 15.09.2022
An anxiety-ridden ride of descending crescendos into a web of lies spun by con man Tom Ripley
Matt Damon stars as the main character, Tom Ripley
Matt Damon stars as the main character, Tom Ripley
Photo credit: Shutterstock

While Corsage has been on my radar for a while now, I couldn’t help revisiting Anthony Minghella’s 1999 thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley when it screened at Cinémathèque this week. 

At once an ode to mid-20th century opulence, it’s also an anxiety-ridden ride of descending crescendos deeper and deeper into a web of lies spun by the titular con man. 

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel of the same name, it follows Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) as he cons himself into a new identity, deceiving and murdering everyone around him as he goes along. After being hired by a wealthy New York shipping magnate to convince his son Dickie Greanleaf to leave Europe and return to the US, the destitute Mr. Ripley smells opportunity. 

Upon meeting Dickie Greanleaf (Jude Law), Ripley becomes infatuated with his hedonistic lifestyle financed by his father’s fortune, his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the magnate’s son himself. Law’s effortless charm in the first third of The Talented Mr. Ripley is crucial to the rest, his presence becoming almost intoxicating to all those that meet him. Tom too is drawn in by his charisma and life of egotistical luxury, and when Dickie wants Tom to leave him be in Europe, the latter beats Dickie to death with an oar. 

This moment already feels like a climactic point in the narrative, being the culmination of Dickie’s manipulative charm, Tom’s obsession with him and their joint luxurious adventure in Italy. But it is only the first of many low points for Tom Ripley who quickly takes on Dickie Greanleaf’s identity - part as a straight-forward financial fraud, and part as an unhealthily simulation of his object of desire. 

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Ripley's girlfriend, Marge Sherwood
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Ripley's girlfriend, Marge Sherwood
Photo: Shutterstock

Ripley, it turns out, is indeed a terribly talented spinner of deceptive webs. Juggling Dickie’s heart-broken girlfriend Marge, his suspicious friends, and all manners of authorities, Ripley forges signatures, writes letters and takes turns playing the role of Greanleaf and himself. He ultimately convinces some that Greanleaf has selfishly abandoned his friends while revelling in the money which he’s appropriated for himself. 

The overwhelmingly paranoid atmosphere, which so powerfully contrasts with Ripley’s new-found life of luxury, seems to not dampen his lying skills. Many a time Ripley comes dangerously close to being caught out, like when he bumps into separate people who know him as Tom and Dickie at the same time or when fellow American hedonist Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realises Ripley’s long con. 

Every time, Ripley deftly navigates complex social situations, keeping up his web of lies long after the audience has lost any comprehensive oversight of the situation Tom’s put himself in. Except, that is, when Miles comes knocking. He’s swiftly bludgeoned to death with a bust. 

Over and over again, it seems like the jig is up. A carefully-maintained sense of pace means that Tom is always just outrunning revelation while an even tighter grip is kept on the atmosphere of individual scenes. Damon’s nervous demeanour never betrays Ripley’s borderline psychopathy, and out of a murderer and a con man he makes a good-natured young socialite who knows much more than he lets on. 

One cannot stop rooting for Ripley when, like a cornered fox, he instinctively reaches for the nearest weapon rather than admit to his lies. More than once, it seems like he finds the only thinkable way of escaping the hole he’s dug for himself - a recurring narrative beat that never ceases to blindside anxiety-ridden viewers. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley, as this vertigo-inducing spiral which shocks with elaborate lies, narrow escapes and impromptu murder, can appear almost bottomless. To the amazement of even Ripley himself, the narrative keeps going until it seems like he’s absolved himself of all legal repercussions and deception. The story is followed through until the sunny Italian summer turns to cloud-covered fall, American detectives start showing up on Ripley’s doorstep and he’s forced to reckon with what he’s done. 

Ripley is undoubtedly the antagonist of the film, and yet his charm - partly borrowed from Dickie and partly by virtue of his own psychopathic lack of remorse - makes him a deeply compelling character worth rooting for. The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a web of lies spanning over an aesthetic of unbridled European hedonism reminiscent of modernist literature, is worth the panic it induces. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley can be rented on some streaming services for a few euros - a strong recommendation for those who don’t mind a little nail-biting when things get tense. As much an exercise in well-crafted adaptation as it is in on-screen performance and down-and-dirty screenwriting, it’s almost impossible to pause the film to pop more popcorn.

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