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It isn’t hard for the average moviegoer to understand what it is that drives the title character of The Talented Mr. Ripley to murder: the sight of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow cavorting through the movie’s Italian locations is enough to make any schlub wonder where his life went wrong and how far he’d go to change it. Mr. Ripley is a richly textured and enticingly nasty work about a man who takes matters into his own hands when he feels passed over by fortune, and it’s the best Alfred Hitchcock movie made since Alfred Hitchcock died.
A washroom attendant and a tickler of piano keys at other people’s social affairs, Tom Ripley (Damon) is locked out of the American Dream when we meet him. He’s smart enough, God knows (give him a second and he can think his way out of anything), but he lacks polish and any real standing. He can see and smell what he’s missing – he’s surrounded by it, he’s steeped in it – but he can’t quite get his hands on it. That is, not until he’s hired by a wealthy sailboat manufacturer to retrieve the man’s dropout son from Europe. When he catches up to Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) in a seaside Italian village, he’s dazzled to find a satyr-like golden boy whom God has blessed with good looks, money, and an obscene sense of self-assurance. Dickie is Tom’s dream version of himself, a playboy in exile who spends his days carrying on with his American girlfriend, Marge (Paltrow), and his nights drinking in the jazz clubs of Naples and Rome.
Tom wheedles his way into Dickie’s trust – the insidious impression he performs of the elder Greenleaf subtly poisons the son against his father – and he soon moves into Dickie’s house, thinking that he’s found a friend, a home, and a life. But to Dickie he’s only a stopgap amusement, almost a pet. Dickie’s loyalties are much more aligned with Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), another expatriate whose droll sense of privilege causes him to treat Tom as a punching bag. (Hoffman, who’s been on a roll lately, brings a perceptible delight to playing this caustic shit.) Worse, Dickie is sick of Tom’s poverty and his weak-kneed attempts to lure Dickie into something more than friendship – he wants Tom to disappear back down the rat-hole he climbed out of.
His mission a failure, and spurned as a brother, a lover, and even as a friend, Tom murders Dickie in a spasm of humiliation, unrequited love, and greed. A grim farce ensues as he tries to convince Dickie’s acquaintances that Dickie has moved away even as he tries to take Dickie’s place in life by cashing his checks and occupying his hotel suites and wardrobe. Marge, Freddie, the Italian police, a textile heiress (Cate Blanchett), and a private detective all have to be dealt with, juggled, and manipulated. And Tom’s natural instincts lead him to a growing involvement with Peter Kingsley-Smith (Jack Davenport), another member of the ex-pat set. The effort involved in keeping his legal, sexual, and ethical identities in focus pushes Tom to the breaking point.
Mr. Ripley loses a little steam after Tom dispatches Dickie because Law is so well cast as the bronzed and fickle Dickie, and because the men’s relationship is so alive and true. (There’s more life and heat in any one of their scenes together than there is in all of The English Patient.) But writer-director Anthony Minghella’s conception of Ripley keeps folding back layer after layer of the character, and Damon works wonders in the part. The story calls for him to be constantly mutating in appearance and demeanor, and these changes are seamlessly wrought – they all emanate from a single source and build on top of one another. Like Norman Bates, Tom Ripley is a serial killer for whom identity is a subterfuge, and Damon puts a different face on every one of his demons.
Nearly every decision Minghella made pays off – the creation of an important character who isn’t in Patricia Highsmith’s novel, the accent on the important role that sex plays in class envy, the straightforward handling of the gay-themed material. (The atmosphere has a heavy sexual charge although the movie has a minimum of sex, either hetero or homo.) The impish xylophone riff that plays when Tom tells his lies, the extras whose clothes and postures make them look like escapees from La Dolce Vita, the million little verbal stratagems by which Tom manipulates everyone around him – all work together to create a cunning little machine of a movie.
Minghella’s Tom Ripley is more morally convulsive than Highsmith’s sleek killer. The movie’s Tom – variously described as "a quick study," "a dark horse," and "a double agent" – starts out by killing his enemies but winds up killing his friends, and our rue-laden final view of him gives the picture its delectable sting. By the end of the movie the cost of his freedom is skyrocketing, and while he’d do things differently if he could, he just can’t resist paying the price. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a seductive hall of mirrors in which voluptuous desires have consequences that can only be guessed at.
– Tom Block