The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – Anthony Minghella

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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.

ripleyThe 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.

Promised Land (2013) – Gus Van Sant

ImageThis film was a collaboration by a lot of people I love.  Story by Dave Eggers, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, score by Danny Elfman.  Directed by Gus Van Sant, the love of my life.  I was very excited to see this movie.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Solutions.  When he and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvanian farming town, their goal is to convince landowners to grant Global permission to drill for natural gas trapped underground — a process known as fracking.  Steve and Sue are surprised to find members of the community expressing concern about fracking’s environmental ramifications. The situation is aggravated by the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a young representative of an environmental group, determined to stop Global at all costs.

The setup is something we’ve seen before: a grassroots movement pitted against a large, greedy corporation.  This rendition, however, isn’t quite so black and white.  While Dustin presents a compelling argument for a wholesome cause, there is something slightly off about him.  His comments to Steve are a little too snide, and his charismatic rapport with the townspeople seems somehow disingenuous.  Steve, on the other hand, is earnest and likable, despite the fact that he is promoting potentially environmentally unsound plans.  His interest in introducing fracking into the town is sincere, motivated by the financial collapse of his own rural hometown, and — most importantly — right off the bat he is introduced to us as the film’s hero.  We learn to like him, to laugh along with his jokes, to appreciate his friendships, and to root for his romantic pursuits before the fracking conflict even begins.

As a result, the film’s tone is uneasy.  It’s unclear which side of the conflict is the “right” one — which side Van Sant is intending us to root for.  This vague cognitive dissonance is really what makes the film interesting.  Somehow, Van Sant manages to tell a story that is both understated and thrilling.  The pace is slow, but I found myself literally thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

The cast does much to carry the story.  Krasinski finally breaks out of his Jim Halpert persona to bring a performance that is subtly unsettling.  He uses his “nice guy” identity to his advantage, exaggerating it into a caricature.  McDormand is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful, once again demonstrating her ability to be at once gruff and lovable.  Sue provides comedic relief, as well as a perspective to contrast with Steve’s: while he struggles with the ramifications of what they are doing, she insists that “it’s just a job”.  Her desire to return home to her teenage son is a (slightly under-developed) subplot.

The film wraps up with a twist, which is always fun, although this twist is perhaps a little too extreme.  As an audience we want to feel surprised and exhilarated, not completely bamboozled.  But in the end, the film is satisfying.  The story is rendered in the small scale — a showdown between two men over a small amount of land — but has clear larger relevance.  Perhaps not a particularly optimistic movie, but a certainly creative and interesting examination of the roles individuals play in the larger machine.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant

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What a trip.  The first of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”—the second being Elephant (2003), the third being Last Days (2005).  Written by Gus Van Sant, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon; starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon.  Two friends, both named Gerry, find themselves lost in the desert with no food or water.

This film was very Van Sant.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it has stuck with me all day and I think it deserves a re-watching.  Dialogue is sparse, and a great percentage of the film is just the two men walking across the anonymous landscape in silence.  Van Sant follows them with tracking shots, and most of the scenes are filmed in single takes.  I have to admit that I found a lot of it pretty hard to watch, but conceptually it was really fascinating.

The dialogue provides little explication, and we know only that the two Gerries are hiking towards “the thing”.  Eventually they abandon their journey and decide to head back, ultimately losing their way.  There is a Samuel Beckett feel to the film, the two men moving meaninglessly through their confined world, a “thing” drawing them in and leading them into destruction.  The dialogue also feels very Beckett to me—lighthearted and mundane, but somehow taking on new meaning in their unique and dark situation.

The use of the name “Gerry” in the film is bizarre.  The characters share the name, and in an anecdote Affleck’s character mentions speaking to a third Gerry, the only person mentioned outside of the context of the plot.  The two men also use the word in casual conversation; Damon points out that “we totally Gerried the scout-about,” and Affleck accuses Damon of “Gerrying the rendezvous”.  Their entire world seems to be connected by this one word.  There is a moment in the film when a man appears in the distance walking towards the two Gerries, but when he finally reaches them he reveals himself to be Damon’s character, Affleck having been sitting beside a mirage version of his friend.  Everyone and everything is Gerry.

Of course, I was especially interested in the way the film connected to Elephant (because analyzing Elephant is my favorite thing to do).  And, to my delight, Gerry filled in some holes for me.  There is a moment during the actual shooting in Elephant where Eric says, “Anyway, Mr. Luce, whatever. You know there’s others like us out there too. And they will kill you if you f-ck with them like you did me and Gerry.”  There is no character in Elephant named Gerry.  Presumably Eric is talking about Alex, his partner in crime, but there is no explanation for why he slips the wrong name.  There is the impression that the world of Gerry, the vast tundra of death (!), extends out of that film and into the death and destruction of Elephant.

Additionally, in relation to Elephant, at one point Eric plays a video game that allows him to shoot down figures walking across a barren wasteland.  The video game uncannily parallels one of the final scenes in Gerry.  One of the figures in the game is even wearing a t-shirt with a star on the chest, which is what Affleck’s character wears for the entirety of the film.  The game is called “Gerrycount”.

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I was obsessed with the concept of Gerry as a video game in its own right.  Towards the beginning of the film, Affleck’s character has a long monologue about a video game where he “conquered Thebes”.  This is one of the longest sections of dialogue in the film, and through its monotony, it presents an interesting frame for the narrative that follows.  Van Sant frequently uses long shots to film the two men, reducing them to small, anonymous figures.  To me, it seems as though the two men have fallen into a video game, trekking across landscape that is being programmed before them.  The concept of a teenage boy from another film shooting them down in this wasteland is particularly troubling.

The ending of the film is dark.  Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted saying, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murder scenes.”  I was forcibly reminded of that quote during one of the final scenes of the film, where the two Gerries lie together on their backs, exhausted from days of walking without food or water.  Affleck reaches for Damon’s hand, but Damon pulls away.  Eventually Damon rolls on top of Affleck, and the camera pulls back ambiguously—are they kissing?  Are they strangling each other?  Are they hugging?

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The fact that the film ends bleakly should come to no surprise to us.  Between the playful dialogue comes a loaded silence between the two men, and as their situation becomes more dire, the film becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch.  All in all, it is not a fun film, but it holds its own.  Great performances by Damon and Affleck, and as always, Van Sant’s camerawork is present and deliberate.  If you’re a Beckett fan, you might actually love it.