“It’s better to be a fake somebody, than a real nobody!” — Tom Ripley
Of all the sociopaths I’ve seen on film, my favorite one has always been Tom Ripley. On Christmas Day 2019, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. At first glance, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), with his thick thatch of blond hair, dark rimmed glasses, and wide mouth full of teeth, looks benign and unassuming. He only hesitates for a brief moment when he’s asked by rich mogul Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) if he knows his son, Dickie (Jude Law). Ripley’s smile never wavers as he gleefully lies. It’s then that we start to realize that there is no real feeling behind that grin. In fact, the closer we look, the more we realize that there is no real feeling behind his eyes, either.
The plot of The Talented Mr. Ripley is relatively simple: Mr. Greenleaf pays Tom Ripley to travel to Italy and try to persuade his son, Dickie, to come back to America. But Dickie is enjoying his carefree, bohemian lifestyle and is in no real hurry to go home. Tom meets this wayward son and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) and they are soon hanging out together for weeks at a time. Having grown up poor and feeling like an awkward misfit, Tom soon becomes enamored with their lifestyle. He doesn’t just want to be rich like Dickie though: he wants to be Dickie. And when his new lifestyle is threatened, he will stop at nothing to protect it.
This is one of those movies that can seem like a simple thriller, but the closer you look, the more layers you discover. Whether on the written page or on film, the talented Mr. Ripley is one of the most charming and polite sociopaths of all time. He rarely comes off as menacing in any way… instead, seeming more like someone you’d love for your daughter (or son) to date. Polite, well read, maybe a little awkward and desperate to fit in, but a killer? Our Tom? Surely not!
But to be fair, Ripley doesn’t kill because he enjoys it. He does it to maintain his new way of life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see any problem with this.
“Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” — Tom Ripley
One notable change the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley makes compared to the book is making the scene between Dickie and Tom on the boat more of a fight and less of a murder. This blurring of the lines almost makes us feel like Tom didn’t have a choice. But let’s be frank. This is what he really wanted all along.
As we watch Ripley fall further and further into the trap of his own creation, he has to scramble (and kill) to maintain the lie he fought so hard for. But Tom Ripley is nothing if not a fast learner. The true genius of The Talented Mr. Ripley is that you know that there probably isn’t a redeeming person behind his smile. But we root for him, despite ourselves. There will always be a part of you that wants Tom Ripley to get away with it. He’s the dark part of us that sometimes just wants to kill someone, but we don’t, because because we, unlike Tom, have a conscience.
It’s amazing how little this film seems to have aged. This type of flick never goes out of style. So sit back and relax with Tom Ripley… if you dare!