Monday, February 15, 2010

Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #1 --- The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella)

Here's what I've covered so far...

The Top 10 Films of 1999:
5- The Insider (Michael Mann)
4- Three Kings (David O. Russell)
3- Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)

2- Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese)

Perhaps some of you are conjuring up images from T.S. Eliot right now as you see a list end with a film that seems more like whimper compared to the 'flashier' films that precede my pick for the best film of 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anthony Minghella's Hitchcockian tale does seem a bit inert when compared to the more innovative and energetic films that challenged the Hollywood machine like Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Magnolia, and Bringing Out the Dead; however, it is often harder to make something so seamless, so smooth, so wholly classic Hollywood that to label The Talented Mr. Ripley anything but a huge success is not only missing what it offers, but what it shares in common with those other more 'livelier' films. Here is a film that one level feels right at home in the 40's or 50's as an effective, noirish tale of jealousy and murder; but also on another level contains some of my favorite postmodern themes like doppelgangers, identity crisis, and pastiche. Sure, the film may seem static and pretentious -- too aware of what it's doing for its own good -- but The Talented Mr. Ripley is as aesthetically classic and pleasing as a film of its ilk gets. I make no apologies for my love of this brilliantly executed adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel. Every shot, every cut, every bit of pacing and acting is pulled off with a classical gusto while deeper and darker ambiguous undertones flow beneath the film's sheeny, seemingly safe, surface. It's just about as perfect as a movie experience can be.

The film was also responsible for making stars out of Matt Damon and Jude Law, two actors who perfectly inhabit their characters. Law's spoiled Dickie Greenleaf is just looking for someone new to lap up his inane, care-free philosophies on women, living abroad, and jazz (the films takes place in the 50's on the cusp of one of the most important cultural revolutions, so the jazz is important in seeing how Dickie differs from his country club parents from whom he's ran away from). Tom Ripley is an enigma, the only thing we know about him is how Minghella introduces him: a loner who is impersonating a friend of Dickie's, a rich prep student in New York, who is hired by Dickie's father to find him in Rome and bring him back to New York. However, like the viewer, Tom is seduced by the amazing scenery in Rome; the beautiful women (especially Dickie's fiancée Marge, played by Gwyneth Paltrow); and Dickie's charms; but even more seduced by the idea of being somebody. When Tom arrives and devises a plan to "run into" Dickie he quickly makes nice and before we know it he and Dickie are inseparable, and Tom is told to stay in Rome and milk Dickie's father for more money, leading to Tom becoming Dickie's "flavor of the month" friend.

Where Minghella's film succeeds (where do I begin) most is in the relationship between Tom and Dickie. When Dickie asks Tom what his talents are, Tom replies: "telling lies" and "impersonating anyone".  Dickie is tickled by this, and perhaps even for the first time in awe of someone besides himself.  Like the 1950's films The Talented Mr. Ripley is trying to ape there's nothing overtly homosexual about the way Tom and Dickie are portrayed. The undertones are there, however, and sometimes they are painted in strokes that may be a bit broader than something you would see in the 50's, but Minghella doesn't make it a primary focus because we are never quite sure whether Tom likes Dickie because he's in love with him, or loves Dickie because he wants to be him so that he can love himself for once. That ambiguity (which leads to narcissism and amorality) is what makes the film so damn interesting (not to mention thought-provoking and hard to swallow for people expecting a conventional thriller). At moments Dickie seems like the nicest guy and it's easy to see why Tom would latch himself to his lifestyle (especially considering where we assume Tom came from vis-à-vis Dickie), and in other moments Dickie is an ogre who cheats on Marge and reduces Tom to nothing.

It's also not clear whether or not Tom really enjoys Dickie's company, or if he just likes that he's been allowed into a stratosphere of society alien to him. He's been briefly initiated and there's a great, creepy scene where Tom listens to Marge and Dickie outside of his room; as he eavesdrops he runs his fingers through some of Dickie's possessions and tries on one of his watched as he apes their voices and mannerisms in the mirror.

Tom meets all of Dickie's friends, most notably Freddie Miles (in a great performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is an arty drunk with a snobbish, nasal way of speaking (think of his character from Scent of a Woman, only more cultured and grown up); and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) who is a gay musician that is the only person who like Tom for being Tom, and an important relationship forms between the two that is crucial for the end of the film. Tom flirts with Peter, too…but is it because he likes him, or is it because it's just another way for him to feel like he belongs in the realm of Dickie?  Tom's relationship with Peter is more overt than his relationship with Dickie (in a rather blatant bit of symbolism Tom gives Peter the key to his new place in Venice), but we're never quite sure if his motives are any different.

Minghella and his actors wisely keep things under the surface until a crescendo of violence that is so subtle (as subtle as a crescendo can be), yet one of the most shocking bits of violence I've seen in a film. The scene is the famous boat scene where Tom has definitely worn out his welcome on Dickie (at this point Tom is wearing Dickie's clothes and beginning to morph more and more into Dickie) and the two explode in an argument on a small dinghy. The scene has sexual undertones, too, as Tom is essentially getting "dumped" by Dickie, which means back to New York for Tom and his less-than stellar life. 

Unable to handle the truth Tom erupts in a fit of rage and whacks Dickie in the face with an oar. The look of horror that Jude Law wears is a brilliant piece of acting, as is Damon's begging off after realizing what he did. However, the scene takes a startling turn as we realize that really Tom would have thrown anything at Dickie...the oar just happened to be the closest thing to him.  And as Dickie's rage takes over Tom is left to fend for himself as he continually apologizes for what he knows he has to do in order to survive: kill Dickie.  The scene proves you can find genuine horror in the most unlikely of places, and I love the way Minghella and his cinematographer John Seale juxtapose the horror and the claustrophobia of what's happening on the small motor boat with the beauty of the blue Italian waters and the vastness that surrounds them.Rome.

After this shocking and pivotal scene, the film turns into a brilliant thriller, a will-he-won't-he type film where Tom assumes Dickie's identity and begins to lie his way into and out of situations that seem almost impossible for him to get out of. It's at this moment that we begin to see Tom really change and almost feel no remorse for Dickie's death because he enjoys living the lie too much...a lie that gets him into a lot of sticky situations.  One of these moments is a tense bit of interaction between Freddie and Tom where Freddie is quite certain that a missing Dickie is actually dead, and that Tom is responsible. Once again Tom backs himself up into such a corner that his only way out is murder. Minghella and his editor – the great Walter Murch – cut the film so that elements that seem so small and simple (and seemingly free of intensity) become arm-clenching moments. Compound that with Seale's desire to shoot the film's tensest scenes in long shots, usually with a static camera, adds to the classical aesthetic that reminded me of a Hitch movie.  Only is it when Tom begins to become so entrenched in his lies (and seemingly unable to remember what lie he told, to whom, and when he told it) and feels like the world is caving in on him does Minghella and crew ratchet up the style with lots of disoriented images of Tom, Dutch angles, pans and tracks that seem to have lost their equilibrium, and a frantic (yet still classically smooth) cutting style that make the film feel more like the Hollywood challenging films we associate with American cinema in 1999.

More people come in and out of the life of Tom Ripley and complicate things even more. Dickie's father is so stuck in his ways he fails to see what Marge sees clearly: Tom killed Dickie. However, she's just a hysterical woman who misses her husband; therefore her opinion is skewed…which of course was common thinking in the 50's. But watch the evolution of Marge.  Paltrow's performance may seem insignificant compared to the two larger roles by the male leads, but it's equally impressive the emotional arc she rides throughout the film.  Watch what she does at the end when she doesn't buy Dickie's death (labeled a suicide because of a fake letter Tom wrote) and has an inkling that Tom was involved somehow.  She doesn't explode immediately in a fit of overacting, she subtly smokes a cigarette and quietly judges Tom, or she says things like "look at you now" as Tom confidently mixes her a drink and acts like living the life of luxury is nothing new to him. The film ends in another bit of shocking violence that occurs off screen (but we heat what happens as Tom stars at himself in a mirror), and like the boat scene it is horrifying in how static Minghella, Seale, and Murch shoot and cut the scene. It's an appropriately subtle and haunting coda that uses an extremely effective use of a door closing as the final image of the film...on par with The Godfather's final iconic image.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a film that is rich with motif and metaphor. Mirrors are constantly in play here as Tom is always looking at new version of himself, like a snake shedding its skin. The motif of jazz is important, too, not just in the sense that it gives us insight into the evolution of Dickie (and acts as Tom's "in" with Dickie...the catalyst for the events that follow them running into each other), but it also acts as a brilliant metaphor for Tom. Tom is often put in compromising situations where the truth almost always seems ready to break through his icy exterior, but like a great jazz musician he improvs and scats his way out of bad situations. 

You also see a lot of distorted faces, and in one of my favorite scenes Tom has just written a false suicide letter as Dickie (Tom knows how to write like Dickie, a motif established early on in the film) and seems to be through with his game.  As Tom leaves the scene he closes a piano and Seale films it in a way where Ripley's reflection slowly detaches from his Dickie persona, and we see Tom reappear in the reflection putting his glasses on.  It's a standout scene and a perfect example of how cinema can so eloquently state a metaphor.  Minghella and co. wisely use a lot of fragmented imagery and disorienting Dutch angles to suggest not just the uncertainty of the plot, but the uncertainty of Tom's psyche, too.






 The film's screenplay is a rich tapestry of lies, and the actors are more than up for the task. It would be easy to make Tom a sympathetic figure, and in the first hour of the film you almost do feel sorry for him, but once you see what he's capable of he's the scariest of movie villains because he's so normal. Damon plays Tom as appropriately needy, but also able to think on his feet, suggesting that Tom is more cerebral than we perhaps give him credit for, and that once initiated into Dickie's world, Dickie was easy prey for him. The script never gives too much away, and we're never quite sure how Tom is going to get out of his next sticky situation (which in a bit of hilarious irony occurs up until the end of the film with the re-introduction of a key character), but Damon never plays it like Tom knows how to get out of those situations, and that deer-in-the-headlights look is something we're never quite sure if it's a ruse, or if it's Tom being genuinely surprised by the situations that are unfolding in front of him. 

It's always tricky when you have a film that has a serial liar/killer as its protagonist.  But Damon understands the nuances of the script and acts them out perfectly allowing to feel comfortable enough to where we almost feel like co-conspirators with Tom. It's still the best I've ever seen Damon in a film and gives Ripley an interesting twist and a conundrum for the viewer: here is a villain that we almost wish would get out of the sticky situations he puts himself in.  It's a delicate balance, a perfect example of the tightrope walking that can sink some actors who don't know how to exist in the gray area, but Damon (relatively new in 1999) nails it. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of those movies that suck me in every time I watch, no matter where I come in at. It has an engrossing, noirish story; amazing performances; and a hypnotic and lush aesthetic. I think it's harder than a lot of people think to make a film this formalistic and not have it be boring. Each frame is alive with some kind of clue or insight into the psyche of the deranged Tom Ripley. It's an unconventional thriller/horror film with a big budget, big stars, and a big director (this is the film I'll always remember Anthony Minghella for, not The English Patient). Its emotions are often held at bay, but every now and then The Talented Mr. Ripley erupts in violence, but despite the static nature of the violence it's never a film that feels emotionless. This film is alive in a way only a handful of the best films of 1999 were.  Sure it doesn't have a chase scene through John Malkovich's memories, or a scene with a bullet going through someone's stomach, or frogs falling from the sky, or even a drug induced scene where ghosts are being pulled from underground; but it's a film that I cherish with its uneasy theme of the annihilation of self and love as the film chillingly ends with Tom destroying all those close to him who knew him as Tom Ripley. Every single frame is dripping with a classic Hollywood aesthetic that would make Hitchcock proud. It's one of the great masterpieces of the 90's.

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  1. Great write up. Afraid I have to disagree though. Its not entirely the movies fault. I'm a big fan of Highsmith's work and I can't help but feel like Ripley is a misinterpretation of it.

    The problem with Ripley is it gives Tom two many reasons. The thing that makes Highsmith's character so enthralling and frightening, is that he has no reasons.

    (Big ass spoilers)

    Highsmith's Ripley is completely and utterly amoral. He almost never kills anyone out of anger or fear (The most he ever allows himself is a bit of satisfaction at a job well done). Most of the time he genuinely likes the people he's disposing of. Its just that its awfully convenient for them to die is all.

    And after all Tom has a good life, a modest villa, a faithful wife, money in the bank. Who cares if a few people have to die to facilitate it. As Tom says himself "Nobody is watching."

    So when he kills Dickey in the book its a perfect passionless crime. In the film not only does Dickey insult him prior to the attack, but he even attacks him. The movie has the gal to make Ripley's crime one of self defense.

    This doesn't even touch on the fact that the movie further justifies things by making Dickey a bad guy. In the book he's a callow playboy to be sure but on the whole likable. In the film he's an egotistical monster who drives a girl to suicide. Justification atop of Justification.

    This is further compounded by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who gets turned into some kind of tormenter. Rather then just another body among the foundations of Ripley's new life, Hoffman is a bitter enemy who Ripley has to avenge himself on.

    In short the movie robs Ripley of his Nietzchean splendor. Ripley is frightening because he kills. But why.

  2. "I make no apologies for my love of this brilliantly executed adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel. Every shot, every cut, every bit of pacing and acting is pulled off with a classical gusto while deeper and darker ambiguous undertones flow beneath the film's sheeny, seemingly safe, surface. It's just about as perfect as a movie experience can be."

    I couldn't agree more and also agree that this is the film that I remember Minghella for. While I certainly can't argue Bryce Wilson's valid points of how the film deviates from the book, I still feel that the film works as its own entity. So, then why even adapt it in the first place? Well, I would argue that the film is merely Minghella's interpretation not a completely faithful adaptation. So, he made certain decisions of what to keep, discard and change from the book and you either like what he did or you don't - the danger inherent in any literary adaptation. I know, I've certainly disagreed with takes on certain books (i.e. EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES) where I felt that the filmmaker got it all wrong but I didn't feel that way with THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY.

    Kevin, I daresay this is my fave post of yours to date as you do a fantastic job conveying your obviously love and passion for this film. I guess it also helps that I share your love for this film. The look of it and attention to period details gets me every time I love the world that Minghella creates. It is so rich and vivid that I feel instantly transported every time I watch it.

  3. This pick was a shocker for me. Although I agree it is a good film I don't think it is the best movie of 1999 although you did a very nice job justifying your choice. Have you seen Ripley's Game, which went direct-to-video but I think might be even a bit better than this one?

  4. You have received the Kreativ Blogger Award. Details here:

  5. This is a brilliant piece of criticism, one you really should be proud of. I do like this film as well, and found it as you did a "noirish" tale of jealousy and murder with a physical beauty that is a trademark of Anthony Minghella, who (before he died sadly in his early 50's) directed and designed the ravishing MADAMA BUTTERLY productuion for the Metropolitan Opera. Minghella of course, showed his taste for gorgeous settings in THE ENGLISH PATIENT too. The film, as you suggest, is absolutely filled with 'motifs and metaphors' and yes, the screenplay is a rich tapestry of lies. To date this may still be Damon's best performance, or at least one of them.

    Your astounding passion for this film is injected into every line, and teh screen cap display is stunning. Bravo.

  6. Bryce:

    I agree with you about the adaptation, but if we were to judge all film on how well they adapt the novel then I think we would be missing the point of film criticism. Certainly that's a subjective view, but often I find that a filmmaker's vision of a novel I love is just that: a personal vision. Sometimes those don't look or sound the way we want them to, and it sounds like that's the case for you and Minghella's version of Tom Ripley. I certainly understand where you're coming from. I was disappointed in Atonement because I was too attached to the source...Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors and I thought they botched the ending of that film horribly...but then again that was the directors vision, his interpretation of how to get that very literary and very difficult ending to translate onscreen. A very hard thing to do successfully. I think that's why I loved last years Disgrace so much. There was a film that understood the mood of the novel and successfully transferred that mood to film.

    I think in Minghella's version of who Tom Ripley is you still get the amoral, ambiguous's just brought out of him by Dickie, instead of Tom of bringing that into Dickie's world, it's more of Dickie's world bringing it out of Tom. It works perfectly with the effect Minghella was going for which was for the audience to empathize and side with a killer, which is why the boat scene is crucial in the film version because Tom has to be provoked...only then do we see his evil side, but somehow we justify what he does because of how much of a jerk Dickie is. The audience, like Tom, justifies the violence. It's a fascinating bit of tightrope walking.

    Thanks as always for the comment, Bryce.

  7. J.D.:

    Thanks so much for the kind words. This certainly was one of my favorite films to look at again, and I'm glad my love of the film showed in the writing. It was one of my favorite pieces to write. I agree with you about the filmmaker's interpretation versus the author's interpretation. I address it in my previous comment.

    Thanks again for reading and for the kind words.

  8. Mike:

    I have seen Ripley's Game and I think that Malkovich is fantastic in that film. Thematically it's on a par with Minghella's film, and Malkovich rivals Damon as the best representation of Ripley; however, aesthetically I prefer Minghella's film. But I would hope people seek out Ripley's Game if they haven't seen's one of the treasure's of the last decade, and it's a shame that it never received a proper release.

    Thanks for the comment and for following along!

  9. Paul:

    Thanks for the award mention! I've addressed being nominated elsewhere on this blog so I won't get into it here, but that doesn't mean I'm not grateful for the nod. I appreciate it!

  10. Sam:

    Thank you, sir. I loved the opera set piece in Ripley (I can't remember which opera they're watching...) and it really showed Minghella's passion for the opera. On the commentary he gushes over the scene, and sees it as a key transitional point in the film where we begin to see Ripley's world really bearing down on him.

    I agree with you too about Damon. I don't think he's been better since.

    Thanks for the kind words and for always checking in on what's going on here. Sorry I've been so absent from the comments section over at Wonders...I'm loving the Silent's poll, though.

  11. You do bring up an excellent point.

    I definitely agree that my problems with Minghalla's movie has more to do with what's in my head then what's in what Minghella made.

    Its just the question of which works you can get out of your head and which ones you can't.

  12. Great piece as always; I was surprised at how much I liked the movie, and it led me to Highsmith's original novels. And the murder of Dickie is one of my favorite murders in movies.

  13. Very good write up; I'm now keen to re-evaluate a film I had mixed feelings about first time I saw it. On the one hand, I found it beautifully designed and shot with excellent performances and Matt Damon in particular tackling a more ambiguous character than we're used to seeing him play; but like Bryce I felt too much of the Ripley of the novels was lost - the cool amorality, as Bryce puts it the sheer convenience of some people being out of the way never mind that Ripley might actually like them.

    I'd also agree with Mike Lippert that Liliana Cavani's 'Ripley's Game' (which I caught on a very limited theatrical run in the UK, is perhaps the better film: it has an authentic 70s feel and a serpentine performance from John Malkovich which is a lot closer to the Ripley of the novels.