The Talented Mr. Ripley Challenges Us To Love a Sociopath
Psychological thrillers are among the best films cinema has to offer. Rich with intensity, their complex storylines test your sense of ethics and force you to question your allegiances. A good psychological thriller can get under your skin and manipulate how you’re feeling.The same is true of music, and when you put the two together, audiences will remember that film for lifetimes to come.
Anthony Minghella directed one such film, which has resonated in audiences’ memories since its premiere in 1999. The Talented Mr. Ripley, adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is one of the best-known psychological thrillers in film history.
The film begins with a young Tom Ripley (Damon) struggling to make his way in New York City in the 1950’s. Ripley meets the famously wealthy shipbuilder, Herbert Greenleaf, who mistakes Ripley for a Princeton graduate and assumes Ripley knows his son, Dickie Greenleaf (Law).
Playing along with the mistake, Ripley is soon given a cash incentive by Mr. Greenleaf to go to Italy and bring his son back to the United States. Using bits and pieces that Mr. Greenleaf unknowingly provided about his son during their first meeting, Ripley re-invents himself to become someone Dickie would feel a connection to.
On the way to Italy, Ripley briefly meets Meredith Logue (Blanchett), a textile heiress, to whom he introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf. Once Ripley arrives in Italy, he encounters Dickie and his fiancée, Marge (Paltrow), in a seemingly accidental meeting that Ripley has actually carefully constructed. Forging a connection with Dickie under the false pretense of being a fellow jazz-lover, Ripley soon becomes obsessed with Dickie and his lifestyle.
He also develops feelings toward Dickie and begins to long for an even closer relationship. Dickie is aware of Tom’s feelings but makes no real commitment towards them, even teasing him about his strong feelings on occasion.
When Dickie’s friend, Freddie Miles (Hoffman), joins the two in Italy for a spell, Dickie casts Ripley aside. Miles can barely conceal his contempt for Ripley. He sees Ripley as a leech who can’t pay his own way and finds Ripley’s presence burdensome. Dickie begins taking steps to distance himself from Ripley; tiring of Ripley’s dependency and obsession, Dickie suggests he go back to New York. During their last boat outing before Ripley is scheduled to depart, the two begin to fight about Dickie’s insistence on marrying Marge.
Ripley, hurt and embarrassed over Dickie’s betrayal, lashes out at Dickie, killing him in a fit of rage. Afterwards, Ripley himself alongside Dickie’s body so that they are embracing side by side in the intimate moment Ripley had always wanted.
Returning to their hotel, Ripley is mistaken for Dickie Greenleaf by the concierge. This is when Tom Ripley really begins to put his talents to work. Once he assumes the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, his life becomes an intricate web of lies and deceit only the purest of psychopaths could dream up. Ripley lives off of Dickie’s allowance, forges his signature, changes his passport to match Dickie’s, and sets up Marge to believe Dickie has left her for good, all the while maintaining the illusion that Dickie is alive and staying at a hotel by faking phone calls and messages between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf.
After setting himself up in a nice apartment in Rome, Freddie Miles arrives, expecting Dickie. Freddie’s initial contempt for Ripley is mixed with suspicion, especially when the landlady confirms that the man in the apartment is known to her as Dickie Greenleaf. The confrontation that ensues is just the beginning of the deceptive shell game Ripley’s life becomes. Having to juggle his encounters with Meredith Logue, who still believes he is Dickie, and Marge, who knows him as Ripley, is further complicated by the involvement of the Italian police and an American detective hired by Dickie’s father.
More convinced than ever that Tom has taken Dickie away from her, Marge is scared that he will do the same with her close friend Peter. Peter and Tom embark on a cruise, their relationship being that of two lovers. However, as with the other emotional attachments Ripley attempts to form, this one too is ultimately disrupted by the deceptions in which he has enmeshed himself. In order to maintain the façade, he must remain empty and alone.
There are many striking elements that present themselves in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but perhaps the most striking of all is the character of Tom Ripley’s relationships with everyone in the film except for Peter and Dickie. Upon each encounter with anyone else, Tom Ripley is blatantly manipulative, plagiarizing emotional responses and imitating real feelings.
His every move is supremely calculated. He seems to feel absolutely nothing for women, and probably never could. But his overwhelming need for intimacy from Dickie and Peter keep him from being truly sociopathic. Ripley’s relationship with Dickie is based on lies, exploitation of Dickie’s funds, and Dickies initially animated, but steadily declining amusement with Ripley’s companionship.
However, Ripley’s relationship with Peter appears entirely sincere. In Ripley and Peter’s scenes together, the audience can really see the dark corners, or “the basement” of what makes up Tom Ripley. The film’s climax comes at a point when that sincerity becomes unbearable for Ripley to maintain. His desire for love is not enough to prevent Ripley from engaging in his manipulative, antisocial behaviors.
Even as the audience attempts to make sense of Ripley’s behavior, they also secretly hope he won’t get caught. We dread that outcome for Ripley because his character has manipulated us as well, tricking us into sympathizing with him despite his behavior.
The Talented Mr. Ripley received mostly positive feedback from critics. Previously adapted in 1960, titled Purple Noon and directed by Rene Clement, some critics thought The Talented Mr. Ripley suffered by comparison. Even Matt Damon was unhappy with the film’s version of the story, telling Roger Clarke of The Independent that he wished the storyline stuck more closely to the book.
Overall, though, it has become a classic thriller favorite among film lovers all over. The Talented Mr. Ripley earned nominations and awards across the board, from the venerable Oscars to ceremonies serving younger audiences, such as the MTV Movie Awards and the Teen Choice Awards. This proves the film’s strength as damning entertainment for any audience.
And if you haven’t seen it before, don’t be surprised when you end up connecting with Tom Ripley. After all, he is quite talented.
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