The brilliance of Patricia Highsmith’s story is that she so smoothly sets things up with the simplest and most innocent of actions, such that the borrowing of a college jacket equals a trip to Europe ultimately leading to murder, forgery and some more killings. I’ve only ever read one PH book (Strangers on a Train) and I think that Mr. Ripley in book form is probably twice as engaging as the Anthony Minghella adaptation but no matter, The Talented Mr. Ripley is as satisfying as any thriller I’ve seen.
And so it all starts with the borrowing of a jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s dad sees a Princeton jacket on Tom Ripley and immediately assumes he went there too. Mr. Greenleaf requests Tom to fetch his son for him in an all expense paid trip to Italy and he goes. He prepares himself a little, studies a little jazz and some Italian so he can be chummy with the free-spirited Dickie and his all too American and similarly preppy wife, Marge. And he succeeds just as he should since he really is talented. He gets to be friends with the couple and more.
Tom Ripley is probably Patricia Highsmith’s most famous hero probably because of this movie and Matt Damon’s portrayal which ushered the story into people’s consciousness. His is one of the slickest performance of an actor I’ve seen doing a character doing impressions of characters. Staring at Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, you can sense the motivation bleed into determination from the way he practices contorting his face in the mirror as he tries to mimic his victims Dickie and Marge, to the way he steals glances at a bathing Dickie, and eventually as he becomes the new Dickie. And also anyone who can sneak in a clueing in of a character’s gayness in a disconcertingly diluted gay role is by itself worthy of a did-you-see-that? type of after-viewing fawning session.
Watching Tom Ripley force his way in and out of Dickie’s crazy life is both amazing and cringe-inducing. You’re both embarrassed of his dicking around for Dickie’s affections but you’re also cheering him on to get what he wants, and on a grimmer level, cheering him on to silence those who are close to finding out about his nasty plans. It’s horrifying to see him prancing around in Dickie’s trousers and yet at the same time relieving when he offs Dickie and the very shrewd and matapobre friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Freddie himself is sort of an interesting character. He reminds you of socialites who’ve been affluent all their lives and who represent all of those who turn their rich noses on social climbing nobodies like Tom, you and me. Incidentally I think of Tim Yap and I was extra cheerful when Tom smacks Freddie the Tim Yap character with a head sculpture.
Tom Ripley gets his comeuppance in the end, sort of. Just when his life was about to take a gorgeous turn as he earns the good graces of Dickie’s father who believes in his perverted version of events and consequently gets away with everything plus cash, with the pretty Peter Smith-Kingsley, an unassuming man clueless of Tom’s deeds about to get on board Ripley’s charades, in a totally shitty (for Tom) but quite well established coincidence, the talented Tom is spotted by Meredith, that annoying girl who just wouldn’t get a clue. This leaves him with no choice but to get attached with the woman since she somehow holds the key to his keeping up with his fake identity. In the end he gets stuck in a situation where one of his talents, slipping in and out of a scene like a practiced eel, is of no use since he’s trapped in a ship. And staying in the cabin for the rest of the trip wasn’t going to help either so naturally, he resorts to doing what he’s naturally good at and you know he’ll do just fine.
‘Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody who thinks that they’re a bad person.’ Oh, but you do. Admitting and concealing one’s meanness has become quite fashionable since I don’t know when but with Tom Ripley, it’s always been a way of life.