Good news for Matt Damon fans: They will hate Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. My theory rests on the junior high school girls sitting behind me, who squirmed and chatted from prelude to coda. I harbored dark hopes that the popcorn they replenished every half hour would lodge under their retainers and cause excruciating pain until they got home to their customized Water-Piks. They had obviously come for a hormone rush, but the Matt Damon they got on the screen offered more complexity than the goofy grin and studiously rumpled hair that smashed teen queens to smithereens in his earlier films. These orthodontic madonnas of the malls were crushed for another reason. Their idol has become an actor.
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" stands or falls on Matt Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley, a character who uses his boyish smile to mask the fangs of a cobra. Oddly, the script by the film’s director, Anthony Minghella, enables Damon to hold both sides of his character in a precarious balance. Ripley inhabits a moral vacuum. He is one of T. S. Eliot’s "Hollow Men," a handsome young man without character or personality. Coming into adulthood in the 1950’s, he has witnessed America’s unprecedented prosperity from the sidelines. He both admires and resents the wealth of his contemporaries from the other side of the chasm of class, cash and caste that divided the country in the Eisenhower years, much as it does today.
Just who is Tom Ripley? Where does he come from? Living in New York, he supports himself as a men’s room attendant in a luxury hotel. In his white cotton jacket, he observes his betters at their most crudely human while obsequiously massaging their egos with a whisk broom for a few coins tossed into a saucer on the washstand. Is this the real Tom Ripley? He also plays the piano well enough to entertain guests at a cocktail party on a penthouse patio overlooking Central Park. Perhaps he is a composer waiting for the music world to discover him, or perhaps he was a piano tuner in New Jersey, as one character suggests in a later scene.
Without an identity of his own, Ripley easily accommodates himself to the lives of others. To play his role at the penthouse party, he switches his white jacket for a borrowed navy blazer that happens to feature an embroidered Princeton shield on the breast pocket. When a guest makes the obvious assumption and asks whether Tom knew his son at school, Tom readily becomes a Princetonian and, of course, a friend of the man’s son. Why not? That identity is as real as any other. This apparently innocent bit of social posturing launches Ripley into a whirlpool of deceit that will engulf him and anyone else who is unfortunate enough to be sucked into his vortex.
As he leaves the patio, Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) mulls over his chance meeting with the young pianist and concludes that Ripley may help him reach his son, Dickie, who rejected his role in the family’s shipping business and took his new Princeton diploma to the south of Italy, where he can enjoy the family fortune without the inconvenience of work. Mr. Greenleaf offers to pay Ripley $1,000 if he will go to Italy and persuade Dickie to return to the docks and derricks of his hereditary empire. Ever open to adventure, Ripley accepts the offer. Why not? He has never met Dickie, but he has never had the chance to go to Europe either. In a wonderful use of decor, Minghella shows Ripley emerging from his dark, cramped basement apartment into the blazing light of noonday. On the street Mr. Greenleaf’s waiting chauffeur hands him a first-class ticket and drives him past hanging carcasses in a meatpacking plant toward the Queen Mary and his rendezvous with duplicity.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Dickie (the English actor Jude Law, whose version of an American accent reflects upper-class pretension) embodies everything Ripley envies and loathes in his betters. After a morning swimming from his yacht, he sips iced drinks on the beach with his companion, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful young woman whose life seems as empty as his. For a moment before his carefully planned first meeting with Dickie, Ripley shows uncertainty about his own identity; he cannot decide whether to wear his sensible street shoes on the beach like the tenderfooted newcomer that he is or to go painfully barefoot like the wealthy regulars.
Like a cobra let out of its basket, he circles his prey, flashes his famous fangs and strikes, pretending to be an old friend from Princeton. Dickie and Marge are annoyed at the intrusion, but they remain polite. After all, Ripley may be somebody. His yellow swimsuit exaggerates the pale skin of one unaccustomed to lounging in the Mediterranean sun. As he leaves, Dickie points out this social deformity to Marge, and replies that he cannot remember him.
Improbably, a friendship that seems to be genuine develops between the two men. Once the relationships have been established, Minghella’s script turns from what appears to be a cutting social satire to a creepy mystery worthy of Alfred Hitchcock at his best. Without the careful attention to the characters in the opening scenes, the story would have been merely ordinary. With it, the film becomes a haunting psychosexual thriller. Ripley’s relationship to Dickie quickly ripens from simple deception, as part of the contract with Mr. Greenleaf, to what appears to be a homoerotic attraction. Marge may be oblivious to this development, either through naïveté, fear of losing a rich and generous companion, or self-sacrificing and humiliating accommodation to the desires of her lover. In any event, she remains complaisant. Ripley begins to wear Dickie’s clothes, and Dickie in turn is eager to make his new friend look more presentable. Gazing at Dickie’s typically distorted passport photograph, Ripley begins to believe he actually looks like Dickie. If he appropriates the clothes and the body, why not the soul?
Ripley can put on a new identity as easily as he can change jackets. In one small step he moves from attraction to imitation to transformation. He wants to become Dickie Greenleaf. Minghella uses music to chart this change in his personality. At first, Ripley, the stodgy patio pianist, affects an interest in contemporary jazz to ingratiate himself with Dickie, a true aficionado. As he moves closer to the heart of his prey, he joins a combo on the stage of a Neapolitan jazz club and sings as though he feels the beat with the musicians, just as Dickie might.
Early in the film, Ripley demonstrates his talent for doing vocal imitations. The talent cuts much deeper, in fact. Ripley is also a talented imposter, so talented that he even deceives himself. Assumed identities, however, bring with them the risk of discovery. In this case, discovery would bring unbearable humiliation: the realization that Ripley is nobody, a man without an identity. He must protect his borrowed identity at any cost, even murder. Anyone who threatens to pierce his carefully constructed facade must be regarded as a potential enemy. Appropriate means must be taken.
Several characters, in brilliant supporting roles, pose a series of such threats. Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchette) is an aging debutante looking for adventure in Italy before retiring to a life of tea at the Plaza and champagne at the club. Dickie, his friend Ripley and their friends offer one last drop of life for her rapidly withering adolescence. Meredith’s companion of the moment, Peter Kingsley-Smith (Jack Davenport), uncovers more about Ripley than he wanted to. Like Eliot’s humankind, he cannot bear this much reality. Peter is a professional musician specializing in Baroque chorales, and again music provides the avenue to Ripley’s inner life. Ripley finds Peter’s music fascinating, passionate, even erotic.
Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is another son of Old Nassau doing Italy while postponing his inevitable ascendancy to the family fortune. With his affected, lockjaw intonation and prematurely thickened physique, he embodies the most obnoxious and least interesting attributes of the idle rich. The fabric of his days at Princeton was woven of expensive beer and cheap sarcasm. He makes youth appear dull and distasteful. Freddie suspects something, but because of his unappealing personality, we hope that he will lose his duel of wits with Ripley. Will anyone ever discover the real Tom Ripley?
The enigmatic ending leaves many loose threads. The journey over the ocean and into a latter-day heart of darkness worthy of Joseph Conrad continues. In the company of the talented Mr. Ripley we have experienced unadorned evil and come to realize that its emissary has no face, no identity. He is talented indeed, but empty.