Tom Ripley cannot be himself. It’s not even entirely clear who he himself is, as we meet him in the opening of The Talented Mr. Ripley wearing a borrowed jacket and assuming someone else’s job. But more than a jacket, more than a fake Princeton pedigree, Tom Ripley is hiding behind a veneer of heterosexuality. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a thriller about life in the closet.
When Tom meets Dickie Greenleaf in Italy he changes himself entirely for his new friend, learning to love that ‘insolent noise’ of jazz and insinuating himself into Dickie’s life. It’s easy to watch the film and think Tom’s motives are sinister, that he’s engaged in a con, but as Matt Damon plays him it’s clear that this isn’t what’s happening. Sure, he’s happy to spend Mr. Greenleaf’s money while lounging on the Mediterranean, but Tom wants to belong. He wants to be a part of Dickie’s crowd, he wants to be a cultured world traveler, he wants to be cool and hip and rich. Tom wants to be whatever he isn't, which is encapsulated as he, an American, sings Tu vuò fà l'american, an Italian song which translates to You Want To Be American. Tom ends the song looking lovingly at Dickie, trapped in a complex hall of identity mirrors.
So he assumes the identity of someone in Dickie's world. And then he wants to become Dickie’s lover, and at first Dickie - Jude Law in a performance of such utter magnetism and privilege that you remember why he was on the cover of so many magazines - almost seems like he’s open to it. But Dickie is as much a sociopath as Tom, a user of people, and once he uses them he throws them away. Tom’s try-hard attitude rubs Dickie wrong and he tries to throw Tom away, and then he’s suddenly faced with another version of Tom Ripley he didn’t know. One wielding an oar.
As a man deep in the closet Tom’s whole life is a lie, and so it’s not much of a stretch to make that lie include being Dickie Greenleaf. Like all gay men of the era Tom takes on a dual life, one that is his day-to-day face and the other another version of himself, one that he would like to be.
But the damndest thing happens: Tom falls in love. And it’s mutual. What’s more, it’s with a man who is closer to the truth of Tom than Dickie ever was. Tom doesn’t need to change himself for Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). He just needs to be himself.
With a minor alteration: himself with less blood on his hands. Tom’s outburst against Dickie led to murder, and the investigation by Freddie Miles (a wonderfully extravagant and haughty Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads to that man’s death as well. Tom’s first murder is a crime of passion, his second an act of fear. His third - and the most tragic of all - will be a combination of the two.
The second half of The Talented Mr. Ripley is an expert tightening of the screws as Tom’s two lives become uncomfortably close, as people who know him as Tom catch sight of him as Dickie and as the Italian police begin to piece things together. Matt Damon is extraordinary as Tom Ripley, a character who could be a simple sociopath but who Damon instills with a wounded humanity that leaves you rooting for him even after he bashes Freddie Miles’ brains in. He’s so young and beautiful and eager to please, with a bright light in his eyes that Damon sometimes turns so, so cold, as in the scene at the piano where he decides that Freddie must die. Freddie plinks on the piano keys artlessly (insolent noise) and makes fun of the apartment, of the life, that Tom has created as the faux Dickie and Damon has the stifled smile of a comic trying not to corpse, a man trying so hard not to laugh at the joke.
That piano comes back a few scenes later in one of the great visual moments of the last few decades; Tom knows he has to leave his apartment and Rome, and he decides to leave behind Dickie Greenleaf. He leaves Dickie’s passport and a suicide note on the piano and closes the lid on the keyboard and we see his reflection, doubled, joined at the forehead like a grotesque Siamese twin. And then Tom steps away, the two heads elongating and separating, an incredible visual metaphor for the two sides of his personality splitting.
For a moment it seems as if embracing Tom Ripley allows him a happy life; he moves to Venice and in with Peter Smith-Kingsley, and the two have a domestic life of bourgeois tranquility and classical music. But Tom’s sins are too big, and they catch up to him on a Greek cruise where he is trapped with Peter, who knows him as Tom, friend to Dickie who killed himself, and Meredith (Cate Blanchett), who knows him as Dickie, with whom she is infatuated.
This is a major change from the original novel by Patricia Highsmith, where Peter is only a minor character mentioned in passing and where the cruise is essentially anticlimactic. Anthony Minghella’s adaptation improves on the source, forcing Tom into one final murder, making one final choice as to who he truly is.
It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory. Tom comes to Peter’s cabin, dispirited. He tells Peter he’s nobody, possibly the truest thing we’ve heard him say. Peter, a loving and caring man, begins to tell Tom good things about him, listing off Tom’s wonderful traits (beginning with "talented"). The camera holds as we see Tom wrapping a tie around his fist, getting a good grip so that he can suffocate the life out of the only person who loves him.
And here Minghella - whose every frame has been gorgeous, elegant and even sometimes playful - finishes the film with a flourish of unparalleled nasty beauty. He cuts to Tom’s cabin as Tom returns to it, after the deed. Over the images we hear Peter listing Tom’s qualities - “Tom is tender, Tom is loving” - and then understanding what is happening - “Tom is crushing me. Tom is crushing me.”
Tom sits down, dazed, the same shot that opens the film. Playing now is not the sound of Peter choking but of Tom himself crying and sobbing. Tom is killing two people at once. Minghella’s camera cuts to show us the interior of the cabin’s closet - the place where Tom Ripley has metaphorically lived his whole life - and the mirror within reflects the mirror over the cabin’s sink, each mirror holding a different angle of Tom Ripley. The boat rocks and the door of the closet swings, cutting off first one Tom Ripley and the slowly, deliberately, closing on the image of the remaining Tom Ripley, leaving the screen in blackness.
It’s a final shot on par with - and reminiscent of - John Ford’s The Searchers. In Highsmith’s book Ripley gets away with it all and has to live his life in paranoia, wondering if he’ll ever be caught. But in Minghella’s version paranoia is the least of Tom Ripley’s problems. By killing Peter he has killed himself, choked the life out of his very soul. He had happiness, held it in his hands, felt it warm and soothing… and snuffed it out. Because he was afraid.
And so the final image of the film is the closet door closing on Tom Ripley, trapping him inside forever.