When wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf first meets Tom Ripley, he mistakes him for an Ivy League classmate of his prodigal son, Dickie (a dashing young sponge on a permanent European vacation). Rather than correct Greenleaf, Tom plays the part. But the charade doesn't end there. Convinced that Tom might be able to lure his jazz-loving, responsibility-shunning son out from beneath the shade of his lush Italian villa, Greenleaf hires Tom to travel abroad, "reconnect" with Dickie and convince him it's time to come home. The impoverished Tom can't resist. On the morning of his departure, he climbs into the shiny new late 1950s-model limousine sent to take him to the dock and hears the driver say, "I can tell you the Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors." Indeed. And the seeds of betrayal are planted.
Italy is lush and lively. The longer Tom spends with Dickie and his live-in girlfriend, Marge, the more he enjoys their luxurious lifestyle. They embrace him and, after Tom confesses his Greenleaf-sponsored mission, all three conspire to live it up and leave Dickie's dad to pick up the tab. But Tom's motives become ever more selfish and sinister. [Warning: Major Plot Points Revealed.] He takes copious mental notes on his host, from speech patterns to penmanship. He also develops an unrequited homosexual attraction toward Dickie, who is promiscuous, but straight. During a confrontation, Tom's jealousy, insecurity and rage boil over. He kills Dickie, disposes of the body and proceeds to live a double life. The Greenleaf name does open doors for Tom, who passes himself off as Dickie, covers his tracks with deceit and eliminates those unfortunate enough to stumble onto his secret.
Positive Elements: With disbelief and disgust, Tom challenges Dickie's womanizing when Dickie tells him he intends to marry Marge. While more "mildly redemptive" than "positive," Tom's inner turmoil and desperate search for identity (sexual and otherwise) represent a tortured soul. Yes, Tom is a homicidal sociopath, but one who finds no rest in his immoral deeds. Nightmares haunt him. Confusion plagues him. He so passionately longs for acceptance and love that he commits heinous acts to secure them, concluding, "I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody." While this amiable psycho's behavior is indefensible, Tom's is a sad, depraved state that illustrates the extreme depths to which unsaved people can sink when they lack a healthy worldview.
Spiritual Content: A religious ceremony involves men carrying a statue of the virgin Mary out of the sea. Peter, a gay man, maintains a leadership role in the church as its music conductor. Freddie ponders Dickie's disappearance with the flip suggestion that he may have converted to Christianity.
Sexual/Homosexual Content: Rear male nudity is shown twice. While on a sailing outing, Dickie and Marge slip below deck for a sexual romp (apparently common since the couple lives together). Dickie is also carrying on an intimate relationship with an Italian girl who becomes pregnant with his child. Freddie is introduced to the audience by way of an obscene comment he makes about wanting to have sex with every woman he sees. Tom's sexual orientation is explored more openly here than in Purple Noon, the 1960 French film version of this story. His attraction to Dickie is revealed gradually, beginning with petty jealousies and weird obsessions, and leading to a subtle "feeling out" of Dickie's erotic tastes. After killing Dickie, Tom cradles himself in his friend's lifeless arms and lies with him a while. Later, Tom and Peter share tender dialogue implying that they could become more than friends. There are no discussions, images or implied occurrences of gay sex, though Tom watches with rapt attention as Dickie emerges nude from a bath.
Violent Content: Tom can't help but overhear a vicious domestic squabble through the ceiling of his bare-bones apartment. A distraught woman drowns herself. After a heated verbal exchange, Tom bashes Dickie in the head with an oar—repeatedly (a nauseatingly graphic, bloody scene). Tom bludgeons Freddie with a bust and later intends to murder Marge with a straight razor. An opera features a scene in which two characters duel with pistols (the snow-covered stage runs crimson with the loser's "blood"). During a moment of sensitive "affection," Tom strangles Peter to death.
Crude or Profane Language: About a dozen profanities crop up in this 140-minute film, but they include four f-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content: Social drinking and cigarette smoking occur throughout. Characters attend clubs and drink beer, martinis and other cocktails. Tom and Dickie sing a song about Americans' taste for "whiskey and soda." After murdering Freddie, Tom pretends that the inert body he's escorting to the car is inebriated.
Summary: What begins as a simple case of mistaken identity leads to covetousness, gay crushes and a series of murders for Tom Ripley, a young Yankee sociopath with a lust for "the good life"—even if it means stealing that life from someone else. What's worse, the only consequences he ends up facing are the taunts of his inner demons. The Talented Mr. Ripley often feels like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. But even in his boldest pushing of the envelope, Hitchcock avoided Ripley's homoerotic tension and extremely graphic violence. Furthermore, it's disturbing how this film manipulates the audience into sympathizing with Tom Ripley. We find ourselves irresistibly rooting for him to preserve his ruse. Very unsettling. The story and its characters are constructed so that we see Tom as disturbed and unloved—a victim as much as a predator. We pity him more than despise him. Why? There are several possibilities:
First, to the part of Ripley, Matt Damon brings his image as a clean cut, all-American boy. A congenial underdog. It might be easier to accept Tom as an unredeemable psychopath if he didn't look like a blushing prom king (where's David Arquette when we need him?). To complicate loyalties further, the characters who "drive" Tom to homicide are themselves morally flawed. When Dickie and Freddie selfishly push Tom away, we feel his sense of rejection and resent the spoiled rich kids for treating him badly. There's no excuse for what happens next, but the victims are no angels either.
Second, factor in our conventional desire to see the working-class guy escape his hand-to-mouth existence, along with our urge to see justice dealt to the morally detestable playboy basking in excess and thumbing his nose at the bourgeoisie. Anyone not born with a silver spoon in his mouth can identify with Tom's struggle to make ends meet, as well as his joyous sense of wonder when he is allowed to experience carefree luxury in post-war Italy. It's much easier to relate to this pale, awkward guest (despite his "issues") than to his tanned, self-absorbed host.
Third, isn't it somewhat unnatural to abandon the main character—who has shared his most intimate thoughts, emotions and secrets with us for more than half of the film—and side with the cold, foreign authorities closing in on our unstable countryman? After years of having Hollywood present foreign prison as a fate worse than death (most recently in Return to Paradise and Brokedown Palace), we almost feel a patriotic duty to root for Tom to elude foreign capture so that he can face justice on his native soil.
Those are just a few of the ways I felt like I was fighting against the movie's morally ambiguous undertow. I can picture a college film class using The Talented Mr. Ripley as an example of how the person telling a story controls how characters, situations and behavior are shaped to create loyalties and emotional attachments within viewers. As an academic exercise, it has a lot to offer. But as passive entertainment for adolescents, it will do more harm than good.