The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

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"It was a good idea to practice jumping into his own character again, because the time might come when he would need to in a matter of seconds, and it was strangely easy to forget the exact timbre of Tom Ripley's voice. He conversed with Marge until the sound of his own voice in his ears was exactly the same as he remembered it."

I had seen the 1999 movie with Matt Damon years ago, and it didn't make a huge impact on me at the time, but I watched again recently and this time it absolutely jumped out and grabbed me. One of the things I admire about Damon as an actor, particularly in his earlier roles, is his willingness to take on difficult, awkward, uncomfortable roles like Tom Ripley: the humiliation, the self-conscious geekiness, the desperate unrequited adoration of Dickie Greenleaf.

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley
I picked up the original novel and found it utterly fascinating, but for completely different reasons than I expected. I think the script (adapted from the novel by director Anthony Minghella) is brilliant, and it goes a long way to making Ripley more appealing. We see his impoverished, subservient life in America; we watch the slights and slurs of Dickie and Freddie (both of whom are less likeable characters); the murder of Dickie is an unpremeditated crime of passion; we watch Ripley fall in love only to realize even if he has gotten away with his crimes, the cost is his heart and his humanity. There is a shatteringly beautiful moment of honesty--and I don't know if this is Minghella, or from one of Highsmith's later Ripley novels:
                         RIPLEY
               Whatever you do, however terrible,
               however hurtful - it all makes sense,
               doesn't it? inside your head. You never
               meet anybody who thinks they're a bad
               person or that they're cruel.

                         PETER
               But you're still tormented, you must be,
               you've killed somebody...

                         RIPLEY
               Don't you put the past in a room, in the
               cellar, and lock the door and just never
               go in there? Because that's what I do.

                         PETER
               Probably. In my case it's probably a
               whole building.

                         RIPLEY
               Then you meet someone special and all you
               want to do is toss them the key, say open
               up, step inside, but you can't because
               it's dark and there are demons and if
               anybody saw how ugly it was...
I also love the addition of the Cate Blanchet character weaving in and out and the ending with the detective. I love the opening, which begins with a case of mistaken identity (a borrowed Princeton jacket) that highlights the class differences. And I love that sometimes Ripley unexpectedly tells the truth to people he likes.

On the other hand, the book captures, excruciatingly, the psychological torment of Ripley, reminiscent, I think, of Shakespeare's Richard III. The book is also full of Italy, in a way that is more than backdrop. I'm also madly in love with Highsmith's depiction of Marge--"gourd-shaped," full of the cheerful energy of a girl-guide, pathetically in love with Dickie herself, and hardly the sharpest tack in the box. She is human and frustrating and sad and interesting in a way that Gwyneth Paltrow's character was reduced into something glamorous. It's a choice that makes perfect sense for a movie, but I liked the book better.

Mostly what I found fascinating was the bizarre combination of Ripley's character, which is emotionally and morally detached from the big events, but the incredible sensitivity to the minutia. He can tell when Marge or Dickie has cooled toward him from a look, or a change in tone, and has to guess at why. He is intensely aware of his own moods and expressions, frequently trying to change or disguise them to fit the occasion. He has a remarkable sense of not being himself, or being "better" at being himself. The paragraph I quoted earlier in which he has to practice to become like himself again is one of my favorites.

The issue of Ripley's sexuality in the book is heavily veiled (1955), but I'm glad it's more evident in the movie version, because it fits so perfectly with his perceived need to take on another role, hide his true self.

The movie ends so perfectly, that it's hard to believe there's more to Ripley's story, but I'm eager to read the additional four "Ripley" books Highsmith wrote.