Tom Ripley didn’t go to Princeton. The Princeton jacket he’s wearing was borrowed from a friend. But when Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, assumes that Tom went to college with his son Dickie, Tom doesn’t miss a beat: “How is Dickie?”
On Mr. Greenleaf’s dollar, Tom (Matt Damon) finds himself on a voyage to Mongibello, Italy, to track down his supposed school friend and convince him to return to his parents in America. All Tom knows about Dickie (Jude Law) is that he’s living with his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), spending hours on his sailboat, burning through his allowance, and listening to jazz, so Tom makes it his business to align himself with these interests — particularly by buying jazz records and memorizing everything he can about the genre. After staging a chance encounter with Dickie and Marge on the beach, Tom is easily able to befriend the young couple and to convince Dickie that they share an alma mater.
Right from the start of this exquisite period thriller, Tom is obviously untrustworthy. He admits (jokingly, Dickie believes) to having a talent for “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody,” and throughout the film he does just that — deceiving Mr. Greenleaf, Marge, and Dickie, and even introducing himself as Dickie to a wealthy socialite named Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett). We know very little about his actual identity; he seems to try on whichever identity strikes his fancy. Given this, it’s unsurprising that his friendship with Dickie never quite rings true; Tom’s every move is calculated to win Dickie over.
Homoerotic undertones — heck, let’s call them overtones — abound. There’s an especially charged scene in which the two men are playing chess while Dickie is in the bath, and Tom asks if he can get into the tub. “I didn’t mean with you in it,” he amends, seeing the repulsed look on Dickie’s face, but the true meaning of his question is clear. Tom’s fixation on Dickie is more than just a straightforward crush, though; there’s an almost Black Swan–esque quality to it, an attraction comprised of both wanting someone and wanting to be them. Dickie is gorgeous, reckless, charming — everything Tom is not — and he’s the very image of privilege, using his father’s money to travel around Italy and do whatever he pleases. Tom, who makes a living cleaning up after musicians back in New York, has presumably never experienced such luxury before. Now that he’s had a taste of Dickie’s lifestyle (which describes as “one big love affair”), he wants it for himself, and he’s willing to take it at any cost.
The premise of this film is admittedly a little far-fetched (would Mr. Greenleaf really be so quick to pay a stranger one thousand dollars to take a trip to Italy? Would Dickie and Marge really welcome Tom into their lives so readily, having no memory of him from college?), but it’s made believable by the all-around fantastic performances from the cast. Law as the handsome, petulant Dickie, with whom it’s difficult not to fall somewhat in love; Damon as the friendly, easygoing, and increasingly unsettling Tom; Paltrow as the pretty fiancée, paid little attention by the men but ultimately more lucid and perceptive than either of them. Particularly strong supporting performances come (unsurprisingly) from Blanchett, chatty Meredith falling more and more in love with Tom — or rather “Dickie” — as they discuss the pleasures and burdens of great wealth; and the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie’s friend Freddie, slick and blasé and unimpressed by Tom from the start.
Supported by a jazz soundtrack that’s sometimes manic and sometimes unsettlingly saccharine, The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my personal favorite films, conceptually complex and beautifully told. The story is terrifying both in its specificity and in its universality: because who hasn’t ever envied the beautiful, wealthy, and charismatic people of the world? I think many of us would happily live that life if given the opportunity. The question is how far we’re willing to follow Tom Ripley in his determination to get it.