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
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.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman