Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

*This post is part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

One of the most exciting things to see Oscar-nominated directors is what projects they choose as the follow-up to their nominated films. Some will stay in the Oscar wheelhouse (a recent example being Alexander Payne's The Descendants, while those who have long, established careers (Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood) will just keep making the kinds of films they always have, with a surprise here and there. But the most fascinating ones are those who have worked outside the mainstream, using their newfound clout to make films no one would expect. Sometimes this works out great (Peter Jackson's underrated King Kong remake), sometimes it doesn't (Ang Lee's Hulk, Gus Van Sant's very misguided Psycho remake).

In 1996, director Anthony Minghella broke through with The English Patient, his Oscar-dominating romantic epic set in WWII. For his follow-up, he decided to try his hand at a Hitchcockian thriller, and the result was The Talented Mr. Ripley. Needless to say, the film falls in the realm of "fascinating follow-ups;" like most twisty thrillers of its kind, it strains credulity in its third act, but it has a lot of great things going for it, from the raw sexual energy between Matt Damon and Jude Law (and Damon and Jack Davenport, and Law and - weirdly - Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Damon and Cate Blanchett, and Law and Gwyneth Paltrow...) to composer Gabriel Yared's tinkling score to that brilliantly haunting final scene.

It's a visually gorgeous thriller, as well. Keeping with the Italian setting of last week's HMWYBS selection, Summertime (my post was sadly derailed by a computer issue), the film features no shortage of gorgeous Italian landscapes. But what's more interesting is the way Minghella - with the help of cinematographer John Seale - frames the central conflict, as Tom Ripley (Damon) stops at nothing to have the life Dickie Greenleaf (Law) leads.

I wrote about the use of mirrors and reflections before in this series, but the motif reflects (see what I did there?) the thematic question of Tom's identity. He's a master liar and manipulator, but seems to have worn so many different disguises that the real Tom Ripley has disappeared. There's no question that Dickie stirs something in him, a desire for more than just Dickie's lifestyle. He wants, deep down, to be apart of Dickie's life, perhaps even become as one with him. There's a powerful erotic tension between the two, and neither one of them seems to know what to do with it.

In one scene, for example, Tom plays chess with Dickie as the latter relaxes in a bath. Tom asks if he can get in; they glance at each other, sizing up the possibility, before Dickie declines. Tom mutters that he didn't mean while Dickie's in it, but Minghella cuts to a shot of Tom's reflection in the water: he's already in there.

But my choice for best shot is on the train to San Remo, as Tom rests his head on Dickie's chest while Dickie sleeps, then looks up to see their merged reflection. Not only does this foreshadow the film's second half, but it also hints at the homoerotic subtext: Tom and Dickie are one, unified into a single being.

Of course, this union doesn't last: Dickie begins to grow weary of Tom, and Tom lashes out violently. Which sets up my second-favorite shot; it really was difficult to choose between the two.

It's picturesque: a boat on the crystal blue Mediterranean. But inside that boat lies the remnants of the doomed couple, tragically cuddled together at last. Tom loves Dickie, but Dickie can no longer love Tom.

A few other choice shots:

It's kind of obvious, but it's a great visual representation of Tom's fractured psyche, which is only becoming more and more cracked.

Tom prancing around in Dickie's clothes is, without a doubt, a delightful and totally GIF-able scene.


Squasher88 said...

Nice choice. I was also fascinated by the use of mirrors and reflections in the film. The characters are so compelling. I wish I could pick at their brains to see what they thinking throughout the movie.

Antonio Cuesta said...

I agree on the use of mirrors. It's well done although it has been used so many times, but Minghella chooses carefully which scenes need it.

Jason H. said...

Squasher88 - I wish I could pick their brains as well! Tom's probably an entire psychology textbook in and of himself.

Antonio - I really appreciate what Minghella and John Seale did with it too; it could have very easily been heavy-handed and clunky, but they utilized it just right.