In late 1950s New York, Tom Ripley, a young underachiever, is sent to Italy to retrieve a rich and spoiled millionaire playboy, named Dickie Greenleaf. But when the errand fails, Ripley takes extreme measures.
Year 3, Film #13
THE GOOD: The Talented Mr. Ripley packs quite a mysterious punch and always keeps you guessing, not only as to what will happen next, but who these characters are, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in particular. Ripley’s entire existence seems to be predicated on a lie and yet, he’s surprisingly open with us at the beginning of the film. He’s sent by Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to go bring his son Dickie (Jude Law) back from Italy. When Tom meets Dickie for the first time he’s asked what is he good at to which Tom responds, “forgery, lying, and impersonation.” The moment Tom spoke this line, I knew I was hooked.
It’s this line that sets up the rest of the film and your expectations. When Tom is still in New York City we see him lie a few times, but they seem harmless enough; little white lies. But after boarding the ship to Europe we begin to see an ulterior motive. Tom isn’t quite who he makes himself out to be. He starts trying to mimic Dickie and match his style (forgery and impersonation) while also becoming good friends with his fiancé Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). All the while, we just sit there with questions rising. What is Tom’s end game, what does he want to accomplish, and if he does succeed, how will he cover his tracks? There’s numerous times where it seems like we get a revealing clue — playing chess in the bathroom — or there’s a kink in the plan — Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — but we always keep moving forward as Tom keeps digging himself deeper and deeper into the lies he’s constructing. Pretty soon, we start losing track of the which lies he told to whom and how all the pieces fit together. That is, until a series of twists change the puzzle completely and everything starts falling into place. By the end, we start to see the big picture and the purpose of all the Tom has done, before we’re left with one final (unexpected) twist in the final scene.
THE BAD: While this film is a great mystery and keeps you guessing and engaged throughout, it’s missing a great foundation on which to build off of. I mentioned the brief time we spent with Tom in New York City where he meets Mr. Greenleaf. These one or two scenes do play a vital role by giving us a meaningful reason for why Tom goes to Italy and how he’s connected with Dickie. But what the film does not do is provide a good reason for why Tom is the way he is. How did he become so good at lying and deception? Did he ever try to pull any scams in the United States or was he getting by just as the hotel attendant? Where does he come from and did he plan this trip and create a run-in with Mr. Greenleaf?
This is a fantastic film and a great mystery that does its job well. But the entire time I spent wondering about how it was all possible. Obviously we see Tom Ripley is good at forgery, lying, and impersonation, and for most of the time we just go with it. But my suspension of disbelief wasn’t complete and there was always that question nagging at the back of my mind: how did Tom start doing this? This provides a mystery in-and-of-itself, one that I’m not sure an answer to would make the film better. But the problem needs to at least be acknowledged to let us know that it was thought about. As the film plays out it feels like a forgotten detail, an annoying detail, rather than another chink to Tom Ripley’s mysterious suit of armor shielding his deepest thoughts, desires, and feelings.
THE TAKEAWAY: The Talented Mr. Ripley is an intriguing mystery where Tom Ripley wanders around deceiving everyone he comes in contact with. It’s an entertaining ride that has you constantly asking questions and trying to guess what Ripley’s goal and purpose is, with twists and reveals that are mostly unexpected and unpredictable. However, the film fails to answer one question from the very beginning which then nags at you the rest of the time: who is Tom Ripley?
THE RATING: 4 out of 5