Movie of the Week: The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley has been on the To-Watch list for the almost two months since Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and with the unfortunate passing the other day of all-time great character actor James Rebhorn it finally made it into our Movie of the Week queue. And it was a great reminder of why actors such as Rebhorn are so valuable, almost as much so as actors like Hoffman. Both make great, impactful use of their limited screentime, and Rebhorn’s recognizable screen persona plays right into one of the more fun moments in the film (Ripley’s impression of Dickie’s father wouldn’t work nearly as well if he was mimicking someone less recognizable than Rebhorn). In addition to being a fine showcase for two sadly departed filmmakers (actually three, including director Anthony Minghella), it’s a solid film all around, though not without it’s faults.

The biggest (or at least most obvious) thing Talented Mr. Ripley has going for it is that the acting is top-notch throughout, besides the aforementioned Hoffman and Rebhorn. Matt Damon mixes pathetic and manipulative very well, and Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow give their expatriate yuppies a good amount of depth. Cate Blanchett is also as good as ever, though it took me almost half the movie to recognize her younger self. And another great character actor, Philip Baker Hall, is given some nice screentime in the end as a private eye, bringing his natural persona to bear to give a minor character some needed weight.

The easiest way to describe Talented Mr. Ripley is “Hitchcock for the Oscar crowd” but that is unfairly dismissive of what the film accomplishes. It is certainly the type of story (and subtext) that Hitchcock was known for, and there are some nice stylistic flourishes- such as the opening credits and the music- that evoke Hitchcock very directly. Unlike Hitchcock though, Talented Mr. Ripley isn’t as tightly paced, the subtext isn’t that subtextual at all, and outside of the few specific moments, stylistically it’s much less brazen than anything Hitchcock did. Still though, Minghella does a good job of slowly building tension and raising stakes, and of orchestrating the messy fallout of all of Ripley’s decisions (though again, maybe taking his time a little too much in doing so). But if you view the movie through that Hitchcock-lite prism, you will most likely be left with a subdued opinion of it.

However it could also be argued that rather than treating the film as a straight-up thriller as Hitchcock would have, Minghella has made more of a longform character study that just happens to veer into thriller territory at a few key points. That is probably the more accurate and honest way of  describing the film, and looking at it that way leaves me with a much better impression of the film overall. Indeed the most lasting impression I got of the movie is not the thrills and tension, but the permeating sadness and air of inevitability. Even when things seem to work for Ripley there’s already a sense of greater doom and disappointment around the corner, making everything he does even more tragic. You almost feel sorry for him, even when you wanna smack his snivelling face, and I think that’s an accomplishment worth acknowledging.

With that said, here’s Shiran’s reaction to her reacquaintance with the titular Mr. Ripley:

Unlike the many movies we’ve shared with each other throughout this tradition, The Talented Mr. Ripley is not a favorite of mine. There’s a technical and intellectual mastery to the movie, and I went through a phase in high school where I used up my VHS lusting over the 50s fashion, but in the end The Talented Mr. Ripley leaves me a bit cold. On some level, that feeling is perfectly in fitting with the theme of the movie, mimicking the isolation of the sociopathic main character. But under his calculating exterior, Ripley at least always appears to have a degree of heat boiling under the surface. The movie lacks that visceral punch. But the very reason I chose to show the movie to Brendan is also the film’s saving grace: the unparalleled caliber of performances. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but the acting is phenomenal across the board, and fittingly I think Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Rebhorn are the most captivating performers in the film. I loved the douchey disdain with which PSH utters every line in the film, and likewise I think the strongest, most memorable moment comes with James Rebhorn’s diatribe against a dead son he never understood. His pained yet stony delivery of “You know, people always say that you can’t choose your parents, but you can’t choose your children” is chilling and stinging at the same time, and showcases the very emotional resonance the rest of the movie lacks.

Also this movie is very pretty.

It’s back to me again next week, and I’m sensing a fun adventure film on the horizon. See you then (and hopefully before then when I write other posts…)

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