There are thriller movies that rely mostly on gore—“Hostel,” “Devil’s Rejects,” “Friday 13th,” and other similar films mostly focus on murder, blood—and their thrill comes from disgust, from not knowing (or anticipating) who will become the next victim. There are thriller movies that are built around plot intricacies, clever investigations, emotional tension: “7even,” for example, “Shattered Island,” “Inception”—these movies engage audiences with the complicated stories they tell. And there are thrillers that build up a thin line between reality and fiction; they play with the emotions of viewers, making them guess what is going to happen every single moment; they make audiences feel compassionate towards each of the movie’s characters, raising the degree of heat each time something happens to the protagonists; they always leave a mixed aftertaste, when you are both relieved that the movie is over, and also craving to learn “what would happen if this and this happened.” The perfect example of the latter category of thriller movies is “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
Filmed in 1999 by Anthony Mingella and based on the same name novel written by Patricia Highsmith in 1955, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” makes you feel uncomfortable from the very first moments. The main character, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), is a poor guy living in New York, and working as a piano tuner. Looking for a part-time job, he borrows his friend’s jacket, who is a Princeton graduate, to get to a high-society party, where he plays piano for rich people. One of them, Mr. Greenleaf, takes Tom for his son’s schoolfellow, and offers him a job. The job is seemingly simple: to go to Italy, where Mr. Greenleaf’s son Dickie currently resides, and bring him back home. Not even trying to explain that he was mistaken for somebody else, Tom agrees—and this is the first, out of many moments, when he will pretend to be someone else.
Arriving to Italy and making friends with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge, Tom starts living the life he always wanted. Jazz parties, yachting, expensive food and drinks, stylish clothes—all these elements of the luxurious life quickly absorb Tom. The only problem is that without Dickie, Tom would not be able to afford all this—and Dickie knows it. Day after day, the relationship between these two becomes worse, mostly because Dickie is gradually losing interest in Tom, and because Tom is too clingy, too focused on Dickie and the lifestyle he leads. One day, the friends go out sailing; Dickie tells Tom everything he thinks about him, in a rude and relentless manner; they start fighting, and in rage, Tom kills Dickie.
The name of the movie is not random; Tom is indeed a talented person, although his talents are somewhat controversial. He is a perfect imitator, able to copy voices, handwriting, signatures, and mannerisms. Having killed Dickie, he decides to take his place. For a period of time, he lives almost happily; having all the money he needs, far from New York and people who knew him well, Tom enjoys the rich life, cleverly avoiding denunciation. However, there are still people who know his true identity—and this fact causes Tom to kill again. And again.
Telling more would mean to spoil the impression of the movie. Suffice it to say that “The Talented Mr. Ripley” does not let you relax; even when everything seems to be fine, even when Tom dodges yet another slippery situation, you know that he will not be left alone, that there is more to come—and this fact makes you hold your breath every five minutes. Tom is not only a copycat—he is also a desperate improviser, inventing new escape routes on the fly. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is, so to say, an evil twin of another movie about improvisers, “Catch Me If You Can.” An evil twin because unlike the main character of the latter movie, Tom Ripley is not just a charming adventurer—he is a dark soul, a person who has lost his identity, a person in desperate need of love. And, in order to get this love, Tom will stop at nothing.
Many critics call Tom a psychopath; I believe it is not true. Psychopaths do not have emotions: they can be compared to efficient computers, always calculating risks and benefits, seeking ways to manipulate other people in order to get profit. Tom is driven by his desire of love and recognition; hating his own self, he is ready to pretend and mimic, ready to deceive and kill only to be loved. Possessing no firm identity, he is attracted by the outstanding qualities of others, even if these qualities are, in fact, vices. Tom falls in love with Dickie—although it would probably be more correct to say that it is not Dickie that he loves, but rather Dickie’s character, charm, wit, and musical talent—all of which Tom wants for himself. Tom is a leech: getting attached to someone, he sucks them dry, adopting their personality. This is why Dickie says that there is something creepy about Tom—and this is why Tom kills him: he cannot stand his true identity (or, rather, the absence of an identity) being exposed to anyone, even himself.
The actors in this movie are brilliant. Matt Damon depicting confused and shady Tom is convincing and indeed creepy; Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf is bright, charismatic, and charmingly lightheaded; Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge consumed by doubts and (later in the film) terrible suspicions evokes compassion. Camera work, decorations, landscapes, music—all this recreates the atmosphere of Mediterranean leisure, of post-war Italy in 1950s. I cannot find a single flaw in this movie—except maybe the fact that Anthony Mingella somewhat changed the original story by Patricia Highsmith, making Tom face repentance and sorrow much earlier than in the original novel. Other than that, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a perfect psychological thriller, a complete masterpiece—one of the best movies ever created.
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