The Sociopath With A Conscience

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Title: The Talented Mr Ripley

Rating: 5 Stars

I think that I saw this when it first came out in the theaters, way back in the previous century. I don’t remember being all that impressed by it, but it seems to have aged really well for me. Sometime in that same time frame, I also read Highsmith’s book. Although her most famous work, I don’t remember blown away by it either. Perhaps I should give that another shot as well.

The movie opens at a wedding reception where Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is playing the piano. He is wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s father, a wealthy shipbuilder, sidles up to him and asks if he knew his son, Dickie (Jude Law), who also went to Princeton. Ripley bluffs enough to impress the father. The father later offers Ripley a substantial amount of money to go to Italy to try to convince Dickie to come home. Ripley, actually quite poor, agrees to try.

Ripley heads off to Italy and ingratiates himself in with Dickie and his fiance, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is dazzled by their lifestyle and completely won over by Dickie’s charms. He immediately confesses his true mission to Dickie and by doing so, cements their friendship.

Dickie is a shallow, spoiled man, so ultimately the charm of his friendship with Ripley fades. Ripley, seduced by the lifestyle and in love with Dickie, cannot give it up. Ultimately, they have a confrontation, and Ripley murders Dickie.

Ripley is a gifted mimic and finds himself easily able to take on Dickie’s life. He convinces Marge that Dickie has abandoned her and he then flees to Rome.

As Marge’s suspicions are heightened, as Dickie’s father comes out to investigate, and as the Italian police are investigating, it becomes a tense cat and mouse game for Ripley to stay a step ahead of everyone.

A couple of themes stood out to me while watching.

One is that the rich are truly different than the rest of us. They all look haughtily down upon Ripley. He is treated almost as a pet by Dickie. Dickie’s true best friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman), maliciously ridicules Ripley, just because he can. Even Marge, who is one of the more sympathetic characters, treats him with casual contempt. He is a toy for them to play with, and then to be set aside when bored. They seem to barely recognize the possibility of his humanity.

The overt gay theme is interesting. The novel was written in the 1950’s. Highsmith, who was herself gay, had to be careful with how to work this theme into the novel. The film is also set in the 1950’s, but even in the year that it was filmed (1999), although much better, was still during the time of don’t ask / don’t tell. The film was pretty overt in its expression. Ripley talks regularly about the dark basement where he keeps all of his deepest, most disturbing secrets, and wishes that there was someone in his life that he could share this with. Since his metaphorical basement includes several murders and probably a lifetime of other acts of evil, he undoubtedly never will be able to share. Although his secrets are much darker than his sexuality, it speaks to the secret life that gays had to live during those times.

Ripley tries so hard to fit in. He is a natural mimic and is a very quick study. He just has so much ground to make up. He knows it and takes every opportunity to suck up new knowledge and to ingratiate himself with everyone he meets.  It’s a desperate life that he lives. He realizes that every moment he is on a knife’s edge and one wrong move could result in Dickie, Marge, or Freddie thoughtlessly casting him out of the paradise that he’s managed to weasel into and into the inferno that he probably thinks that he deserves.

The acting is superb. Jude Law lights up the screen with his charm, and then, when displeased, darkens it immediately. He is truly the feckless spoiled man-child who just takes it for granted that everything will turn out well for him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as the hedonist Freddie, not even trying to disguise the fact that he treats his lessers as a lower form of humanity, and pretty much everyone is his lesser.

At the center of all of this is Ripley himself, Matt Damon. Ripley is truly a sociopath. He will say or do anything to get what he wants. He will smile and endure all kinds of both subtle and overt abuse if at the end he is still ahead. He will murder. He will lie. He will steal. He will flee.

Despite that, and here’s the contradiction, you sense his vulnerability. He knows what he is doing is wrong and he knows that it will haunt him. He might achieve his goals but he will always be haunted by what it took to achieve them. Damon does an outstanding job embodying this contradiction. He is the desperate poor boy, nose pressed against the window, desperately trying to get inside. He does so, at the price of his soul, and he knowingly pays it, knowing that he’ll always hate himself.

 

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