The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Dir. Anthony Minghella. Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law

On an individual level, just about everything in this movie is wonderful. Anthony Minghella’s direction is competent and assured. His screenplay is effectively paced, providing ample time for us to watch Tom Ripley come up with ideas about how to manipulate his compatriots in age and nationality if not social class, and then ample time to watch him do it. John Seale is doing marvelous work as Minghella’s DP, too. Close-ups of talented, aggressively hot actors are paired with these gorgeous wide shots of a gorgeous wide Italian world. There are individual shots in this movie which I think work as moving images and not simply as some icon of static beauty: the uncanny horror of a Madonna emerging from the sea, Tom’s face in front of a green wall, Tom and Dickie (Law) puttering off in a motorboat in the final hours of Dickie’s life with a majestic facades of San Remo behind them, Tom and Meredith (Cate Blanchett) walking to the left in front of one of Rome’s many fountains without even turning around. Gabriel Yared’s music meets jazz standards at the precise angle; that one scene in a club where Tom and Dickie join a hairy Italian in a number is delightful, and that silly late ’50s song is a good as heck jazz number. This is a movie in that tricky 135 minute zone, and yet it never feels long or dawdling; doubtless this is the influence of having one of the all-time greats, Walter Murch, cutting the movie. Pick something else, from production design to costumes to special effects makeup, and The Talented Mr. Ripley is doing wonderful work.

It’s not every movie that has, arguably, the two finest screen actors of its generation in it, but Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett, in supporting roles, are among the less interesting players. In 1999 I’m sure it must have seemed like Jude Law, playing Anthony Andrews playing Sebastian Flyte without the restrictions of early 1980s television, would scorch screens for the next fifteen years with an unbelievable degree of sexiness and then back that up with equally strong acting. It’s one of those performances that’s so good that the movie stops cold when he’s out of it, and unfortunately Dickie Greenleaf is oared and gored before the end of the first half. Someone named Marge has never looked so good as when Gwyneth Paltrow is playing her, and she looks good too in the wake of her Oscar; only one tearful scene is really beyond her, and the rest of the time she plays mistrust of Tom with a kind of frazzled frustration that we can believe. Hoffman is relying a little too much on vocal tics, but his face is right; Blanchett is nervous and showcases all those gifts for comedy that she’s got. James Davenport is gentle and tender; James Rebhorn is decisive and ashamed. And I’ve never been as interested in Matt Damon the actor as I was watching him in this movie. That toothy smile he pulls out for this movie has all those carnivorous implications on the other side, much too big and practically snapping with all those teeth. This is an extremely strong performance from an actor whose obituary will probably lead with the Bourne movies, or, worse, Good Will Hunting, and this is a completely different side of his abilities that’s much tougher to find. Tom Ripley is neither action hero nor garish pastiche, but a young man who has that awful combination: an inflated sense of self-importance and an unshakable vulnerability. It’s what makes him a good con man, if not quite a great one. A great one would not be sniffed out quite as easily by someone as naïve as Marge, nor would he be as easily trapped by Freddie (Hoffman), but he is certainly good enough to flummox the elder Greenleaf (Rebhorn) or Meredith. Damon makes sense as Tom Ripley, and there are stretches of the movie where I think you can forget he’s Matt Damon. I can think of little praise higher than that for someone as famous as him. (I’ve read around a little bit and I understand that this is a somewhat controversial take, but I am as much of a naif as Marge Sherwood in these matters: I’ve never read Patricia Highsmith’s novel, nor have I seen Alain Delon play the character in Purple Noon.)

Also, I sort of glossed over this earlier, but it is alarming how hot everyone is in this movie! There are movies which prize verisimilitude and there are movies that prize hot people, and The Talented Mr. Ripley has enough self-knowledge to know what it means to choose that path. This is no criticism. Hot people on the screen are a virtue in and of themselves as long as the movie understands that it’s not La terra trema or something.

That everything in this movie works as well as it does makes this movie all the more puzzling to me. Why isn’t it better? Why isn’t this, like Topsy-Turvy or The Straight Story, one of the best movies of 1999? Why, among Minghella’s directorial efforts, is it so much less affecting than The English Patient, and what makes it so much more like Cold Mountain? On worse days, I think I’d say that this movie, while well made, lacks an alchemical element like quicksilver which gives zest and life to a movie beyond its craftsmanship. As poetic as that might be, while cinema is neither wholly art nor purely science, it is both more than it is pseudoscience. What I think The Talented Mr. Ripley probably lacks instead is the same fault we can find in Cold Mountaior, more recently, in movies as different The Two PopesCan You Ever Forgive Me?, or Blade Runner 2049. There’s obvious craft in those movies and skill in the making, strong performances, good writing, capable direction, well-executed moments. Yet in all of those movies, there’s something missing. Sometimes it felt like Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for Two Popes was incidental to how Anthony Hopkins or Jonathan Pryce spoke the words from it. The visual approach of Can You Ever Forgive Me? was basically unimportant compared to what Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant were doing on screen. Does Ryan Gosling really add anything to Blade Runner 2049 compared to what Roger Deakins and John Nelson’s team did? Maybe it’s quicksilver, maybe the ghost has been banished from the machine, or maybe those movies just weren’t directed well enough.

A failure, or at least an insufficiency, in direction is the central problem with The Talented Mr. Ripley, just as I think it’s the major problem with each of those three recent movies I’ve listed. (I would listen to an argument that said that the screenplay was the major problem with each one, because it is reasonable to suggest that the central character of each of these four movies is living a lie of some kind, or is at the very least struggling in the process of self-discovery that we’re brought along on the ride to see. There’s an inherent struggle in movies about cons, for Ripley and Forgive Me? are both explicitly about cons, in bringing the real person to life alongside the person they’re suggesting to others that they are. And there’s an inherent struggle in bringing people with mysterious pasts, like Bergoglio or K, into the light. For reasons I’m about to enumerate below, I think direction has to be the primary problem and the way the story fails to really plug into characterization is the secondary.)

By rights, a movie where everything is so well done from mast to keel ought to be a truly outstanding movie, and which, like the examples from the past five years, is still a good one. Yet it’s very good in spite of its direction rather than because of its direction, just as a company or team with talent can be good despite a weakness at the top, or, alternately, just as a company or team with talent can be made exceptional with better leadership. This is an enjoyable movie oozing with talent, but it never really crosses the gulf to emotional feeling. A scene where Philip Baker Hall, as a gruff PI, has it out with a somewhat shellshocked Matt Damon should be enormously affecting. MacCarron appears to be dangling the evidence that would put Tom away right in front of him; then he tells Tom that he’s been instructed by Greenleaf to dump incriminating license plates in the Venetian canals. He’s off the hook. And yet it’s a moment which has no real purchase in it; we should be steaming with rage that this becoming serial killer is off the hook, or we should be relieved that our little con man guillotine for the itinerant twentysomething Yankee aristocrat is going to get away with it. I don’t think it’s a problem in the cuts or the location of the shots, or in Hall or Damon; I even think Minghella’s screenplay handles this adequately. The trouble with it is that it just sort of happens, sort of like Dickie is just killed or like Marge is just backed up against a door while Tom has a razor in his pocket or like Peter (Davenport) is just murdered offscreen.

At the risk of repeating myself for the umpteenth time, those scenes are well done, and I can’t find meaningful flaws in them that should derail the overall quality of the movie. But The Talented Mr. Ripley never really makes those scenes gripping as emotional moments, either as moments where we’re pulling for Tom or we’re hoping that he’ll be found out. This is true about other characters as well. When Marge laments for Tom’s sake that making Dickie the object of your obsession is about as reliable as making the sun the object of your obsession, it’s a beautifully written thought, and Paltrow says it well. Yet it never really makes that incision into either one of them, never really explores the pain of being in the coldness of a world without sun. How can it be that Cate Blanchett is shot this well, acts so well, says things which make sense for the character, and yet there’s still a scrim over the entire character of Meredith Logue, a haziness that hardly seems useful for a supporting character like her. I can’t think of another reason that some element as well done as Meredith should feel so empty outside of blaming the director, the one whose job it is to synthesize the work and help the meanings shine through.

Tom is obviously in love with Dickie, just as much as Marge is. Watching Damon find ways to put himself closer to Law is sort of interesting in the same way that I thought who had a crush on who might have been interesting as a fifth grader. Whether or not it really means something to us is something entirely different. I think knowing all of this stuff happens, seeing all of it occur in front of us, is engaging. This is an entertaining movie because just about any movie about cons tends to be entertaining, let alone a movie which has so much candy onscreen. (The Italian setting counts as candy too, you reprobate.) Yet it’s not really all that interested in digging into Tom Ripley (because as pat as the “fake somebody vs. real nobody” debate is, that cannot be genuinely incisive), not all that invested in what spurs these young Americans to become expatriates, not all that concerned with why we might want Tom to get out of it short of his charisma. As the murders pile up, the film starts to lose control of itself. Killing Dickie is something of an accident, a nightmare under Uranian blue skies. And then, as new victims agglomerate, they mean less and less, until we don’t even have to watch them anymore. It’s a bad mistake—a mistake in the choice a director makes even more than a mistake in the choice a screenwriter scribbles out—because it’s choosing “haunting” over “meaningful.” There’s a real chance that Peter is the closest Tom can come to finding a suitable mate, but Minghella opts for words, either spoken ruefully by Tom or heard in voiceover from Peter, which deny us our writ of habeas corpus. We should get to have the body, and in the end we don’t.

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