"The Talented Mr. Ripley"

Matt Damon makes us sympathize with a killer; Anthony Minghella shows us why we do.

Published July 14, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Talented Mr. Ripley"
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Miramax; widescreen anamorphic
Extras: Theatrical trailers, director commentary, film featurette, more

It's difficult to empathize with a murderous liar, but Matt Damon somehow makes it possible. His Tom Ripley is always on the wrong side of the door, living in dismal basement apartments, or dropped, bone white, wingtips in hand, on a golden Mediterranean beach. In New York, at the start of director Anthony Minghella's sun-drenched reading of Patricia Highsmith's novel, Ripley is a bathroom attendant and struggling pianist who can't even afford a nice jacket. In order to perform at a party on Central Park East, he borrows a blazer with a Princeton insignia. While wearing it, he meets a wealthy shipbuilder whose son, Dickie (Jude Law), went to Princeton and who is now traipsing around Europe with a saxophone and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Ripley feigns knowing Dickie, and the captain of industry tells the pianist he will pay him to fetch his son.

Ripley is a masterful mimic and a willing double agent. By pretending to like Dickie's beloved jazz and by turning against Dickie's father, he insinuates himself into a fabulous world. He wants nothing more than to be close to Dickie -- to live Dickie's life, to be Dickie. But Ripley is a mooch and a poseur, and when the other characters begin to find out, he's willing to do almost anything to keep going. Suddenly, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" shifts from a lovingly shot series of Italian postcards to a dizzying close-call thriller about identity, improvisation and the sad scramble that comes after Ripley gets everything he has ever wanted.

The DVD includes a dimly illuminating set of interviews with the actors, director and producers, two music videos -- including Damon's creepy and beguiling version of Chet Baker singing "My Funny Valentine" -- and a short feature about making the soundtrack.

But the DVD's best feature is Minghella's outstanding audio commentary. He dissects the story, points out subtle actor tics and delivers what is in essence a bracing lecture on the language of film. The title credits, for example, evoke the era of cool Blue Note jazz. Statues of disassociated body parts are symbols of Ripley's fractured personality. Scenes were shot from Ripley's point of view to bring the audience into his world. If all DVDs were this good, they could run film schools out of business and even force critics to put down their light pens. (Perchance to dream ...) Without saying as much, Minghella explains that he wanted to open up or universalize Highsmith's novel. In the book, Ripley is a petty thief and then a calculating conniver. When Minghella and Damon are finished with him, he's a man twisted by circumstance, a brilliant improviser and, most impressive, a killer whom the audience can actually feel sorry for.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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