As the title character of ``The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' he plays an
ingratiating sociopath who works his way through the American upper
crust at play in Italy, leaving behind a bloody but elusive trail.
The mystery is not who did it, but whether he will get caught.
This thriller is so expertly -- and perversely -- poised that
audience members may find themselves secretly rooting for the
The talent is by no means limited to Mr. Ripley. Damon is matched
in every slippery turn by a right-on-the-money cast that includes
Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Director Anthony Minghella (``The English Patient'') adapts the
second screen version of the Patricia Highsmith novel for fresh
surprises. Along the way, he exposes the dirty little secret of American
democracy: the impenetrable barrier the upper class erects around
So the question becomes, is it better to be a fake somebody than a
Minghella takes a close look at this question over a
never-lagging-for-a-moment two hours and 20 minutes. He gives it so
many seductive twists across the map of Italy that the upwardly
mobile among us, if they're honest with themselves, will opt for the
Tom Ripley does, and never looks back. In
the chase for the best holiday movie this season, ``Ripley'' is one
step ahead of the rest.
The film certainly begins with the slickest main titles, as the
many-faceted Mr. Ripley's various attributes flash by, replacing the
word ``talented.'' The only thing they leave out is that he is poor
and has no intention of staying that way.
In Damon's uncanny performance, people think Ripley's ``an
exceptional young man,'' and there's no doubt of that. He is first
seen accompanying a classical singer at the piano, but next he's
brushing down gentlemen's clothes for tips.
No one has to show him the money. He has an extraordinary nose for
sniffing out the rich, even when they are trying to play down their
status by traveling under their mother's name so no one will
The chameleon Ripley takes on the attributes, accents and
expressions of the rich in an --
instant. He can do imitations of someone moments after meeting him --
or her. His own look is nondescript, a '50s version of a preoccupied
nerd, dorky eyeglasses, downturned smile and all.
If things go against him, he can turn on a dime. His other
talents: forging signatures and telling bald-
faced lies without batting an eyelash. He has a remarkable capacity
to shrug off setbacks and just keep moving.
A wealthy shipbuilder named Greenleaf puts down his guard and
takes Ripley for someone he can trust. He dispatches Tom to Italy to
persuade his ne'er-do-well son, Dickie, to come home.
As the supercilious Dickie, the tawny Law (``eXistenZ'') catches
exactly his character's curious balance of attraction and repulsion.
The thoroughgoing expatriate at leisure, he indulges his love for
boating and jazz at lively waterfront joints. The kiss-on-both-cheeks
greeting for men and women alike, Italian style, is second nature to
Paltrow (``Shakespeare in Love'') is Dickie's blue-blood
girlfriend, Marge, coolly perceptive but not enough so to see that
he's two-timing her. It takes her a while to catch on to Ripley, too.
A REPELLENT EXPATRIATE
Hoffman (``Happiness,'' ``Flawless'') plays the loathsome Freddie,
a fellow expat. Someone describes him as ``the cream of America --
rich and thick.'' His indolent drawl outdoes even William F.
Hoffman's performance, Freddie is so repellent that it wouldn't be
surprising if some of his so-called friends would be happy to see him
dead. Freddie is not only loathsome, he's too smart for his own good.
He sees through Ripley.
Wonderful character actors show up as the Italian police,
including a volatile inspector from Rome. An ominous private
detective whom the elder Greenleaf hires also appears and does an
Ripley's a quick study. As soon as he learns that Dickie is a jazz
buff, he gives himself a crash course -- and Damon later sings a
tender version of ``My Funny Valentine.'' The effective score
includes Miles Davis'
``Nature Boy'' -- though the lyrics are not sung, jazz fans will
recall that they refer to ``a strange, enchanting boy,'' a perfect
Ripley must be a good chess player, too, because he sees many
moves ahead and lets social butterfly Meredith Logue (Blanchett)
mistake him for Dickie. The impersonation will come in useful later
-- until it all backfires.
Eventually, Ripley will brazenly take over Dickie's identity to
the point that he can register at posh hotels and cash checks in the
other man's name.
Ripley will even tell the truth when it serves his purposes. He
lets Dickie know that he is Dickie's father's paid emissary because
he sees that Dickie will get a kick out of stringing Dad along. ``I'm the
brother you never had,'' Ripley confides. Each of them, including
Marge, is an only child; i.e., self-centered.
There are some people who are going to say with some justice that
Dickie gets what he deserves.
Dickie's attention is like a spotlight: When Law turns it on
people, it makes them glow. It works with other women, besides Marge,
whom Dickie wants to get into bed and -- who knows -- it begins to
look as if it works with men, too.
SEEING THE GEARS TURNING
There are limits, however, to Dickie's attention. He gets bored
with Ripley and tells him he has become a leech. Ripley is quick on
his feet, and Damon lets you see the gears of the man's mind turning
as he feigns innocence and panic starts to slip through. It is an
altogether amazing performance.
Ripley comes on to whomever he thinks can be useful to him. A gay
undercurrent begins as a little frisson and breaks through the
surface before this film reaches its conclusion, where Minghella is
confident enough to leave something to the viewer's imagination. It
will also leave audiences in a state of suspended tension that they
haven't felt since ``The Sixth Sense.''
This is the second excellent film based on the Highsmith novel.
Rene Clement's ``Plein Soleil,'' a French version called ``Purple
Noon'' in English, was released in 1960. More condensed and
economical, it came to a different ending and starred Alain Delon as
the American Ripley. Believe it or not.
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle