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‘Ripley’: Believe It or Not, It’s Wicked Good

Is the world ready for another Tom Ripley?

Writer-director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) seems to think so, and in this third adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s most celebrated novel, we finally get to see the true face behind Ripley’s mask of devious charm.

Like Ripley, Highsmith was adept at turning our sympathies upside-down.

In her 1955 novel she managed to get readers to root for a guy who cons his way into the trust of a young shipping heir named Dickie Greenleaf, kills Dickie on a rowboat, steals his identity, takes his stuff, gets away with it, and feels pretty good about it all. She pulls it off by keeping the rope of suspense taut (another of her novels, Strangers on a Train, would be adapted by Hitchcock): you keep waiting for Tom to get caught but he always plucks himself out of danger because he’s just that, well, talented.

Although his origins are unglamorous—he starts out running cheap con games in New York—Tom is a quick study: he learns to imitate the ways of the rich, the voices and mannerisms of his hosts, all so that he can get close to his prey. It helps that he’s a poor kid and his victims are so snobbish and rude: no tears are shed for dead Dickie Greenleaf.

As we watch Ripley move into a tastefully decorated Venetian mansion, we can even persuade ourselves that a kind of dark justice has been done. He may have killed Dickie and stolen his trust fund, but Dickie was just spending his dad’s money so stupidly (his proudest purchase was a refrigerator) and Ripley is spending it with style.

Although I’ve enjoyed every Ripley adaptation I’ve seen, I’ve never really felt good about enjoying them. Stylish sociopaths like Dorian Gray and Hannibal Lecter are fun to watch but hard to embrace, because they’re assholes: we have all met a Tom Ripley at some point in our lives, and the memory is rarely pleasant. The more you see Tom gaslight Dickie’s girlfriend Marge—convincing her that Dickie isn’t dead, he’s just not into her that way—the worse our emotional hangover gets, until we’re finally forced to admit that we’ve been charmed by a monster.

Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley

Whether Ripley knows he’s a monster is uncertain. His desires—for money, flesh, or something else—are deliberately ambiguous. It’s never clear if Ripley wants Dickie’s money, wants to be Dickie, or wants… Dickie. This has long been part of the novel’s attraction. Highsmith was writing at a time when homosexuality was both taboo and titillating: the scandalous Leopold & Loeb murders associated gay love with thrill-killing and jaded seductions, and Highsmith played this trope in a way that was more alluring than repellent. It has, however, created a problem for filmmakers who understandably prefer to avoid the movie stereotype that gays are trying to murder us all.

René Clément’s Purple Moon eliminates the homoerotic subtext entirely, effectively turning his loose adaptation into a critique of capitalism. Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley suggests Tom isn’t evil so much as isolated and paranoid: his Tom Ripley knows he’s gay, knows he’s in love with Dickie, is terrified of this coming to light, and only strikes in self-defense when Dickie tries to kill him.

Steve Zaillain’s Ripley goes another way entirely. His Tom Ripley—played with a chilly intensity by Andrew Scott (Band of Brothers)—is clever and resourceful, but we’re not meant to like him, and we don’t. The question of his homosexuality isn’t ignored or highlighted, it’s simply treated as a matter of no importance. When it suits Tom’s purpose, he’s happy to let Marge (Dakota Fanning) and a local Italian detective (Maurizio Lombardi) think that he and Dickie were lovers—not because they were, but because it helps Tom keep his various deceptions alive. Queer-coding is just another tool in Mr. Ripley’s long con.

And that’s what Ripley is according to Steve Zaillian. Not a fun, charming sociopath—although he does learn fluent Italian and develops a taste for the paintings of Caravaggio—but just the sort of guy who will call up pretending to be a collection agency so he can browbeat you into sending him a check for twenty-seven dollars. Which is just what we see him doing at the start of Ripley. He lives in a crummy tenement with a communal shower, wears the same dirty suit every day, steals people’s bills so he can perfect his routine, and is ready to run when the bank teller gets suspicious. If Dickie’s rich father hadn’t happen to mistake him for a friend of his son’s, Tom probably would have wound up doing a few years on Riker’s Island.

So why are we getting this Ripley, this very cold and unglamorous Ripley, and why does it work so well? Ripley’s whole brand is about our admiring him while he picks our pockets. Ripley blows this away in a cold blast of honesty, which is frankly refreshing. As Zaillian writes him and as Scott plays him, this Ripley is the kind of psychopath we actually meet in the real world. Feelings are simply a thing to be exploited in other people. Lies and murder are just things you do to get what you want. This Tom Ripley often acts on impulse, and his plans sometimes go ass over teakettle.

One of the best examples of this is when Dickie’s pal Freddie Miles (a deliciously louche Eliot Sumner) comes calling at a swanky Rome apartment Tom leased with Dickie’s money. Freddie is a feckless drunk, but he’s also got Tom’s number: he knows that Tom has assumed Dickie’s identity with a doctored passport.

Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles

When Freddie announces that he’s going to expose Tom to the police (for God’s sake, never do that if you’re a movie character), Ripley bashes his skull with a heavy glass ashtray… and is then reminded just how hard it is to get rid of a body. Earlier, he’d tried to weight Dickie Greenleaf’s body down with the boat anchor and damn near drowned himself in the process. This time he tries to think ahead, and nearly gets it right. He smokes a few of Freddie’s cigarettes to set a timeframe and feeds vodka into the dead man’s mouth to fool the coroner into thinking Freddie died drunk. So far so good. Then he realizes it’s kind of hard to make a dead guy sit up straight while you sort all this out. Blood smears all over the floor, walls, and bathtub—good luck getting that deposit back—and when the elevator goes out, Tom is forced to drag dead Fred down the stairs, bloody head bonking on every step, until finally he resorts to the Weekend at Bernie’s trick of pretending that Freddie’s just drunk while he stuffs the body into Freddie’s car.

This scene, and others like it, veers between horror and hilarity.

At times, it nearly makes you feel sorry for Tom. But mainly it leaves you with the impression that this Tom Ripley isn’t very good at his job of being a psycho killer. Scott does an excellent job of playing the moments when Ripley is out of his depth: in the first episode he gets conned out of his traveling money by a grifter at the train station, then embarrasses himself trying to cough up even a few words of Italian. He confronts obstacles with the baffled, glassy-eyed look of a guy who’s just locked his keys into his car. If he does get away with murder—twice—it’s not because he’s a genius, but because everyone who doesn’t like him is not very bright. The sole exception, the fastidious detective assigned to find the killer of Freddie Miles (which he drily pronounces “malaise”), quickly reasons that Freddie’s murderer was almost certainly the man who introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf. Except that he doesn’t know that “Dickie” is actually Tom Ripley, which means that his trap can never quite spring: all Tom has to do to get away is stop being Dickie and re-assume his old identity again.

This leads to the big one moment in the limited series that really does not land. When Tom is finally obliged to meet the detective—not as Greenleaf but as himself—he resorts to dimming the lights and putting on a wig. As a disguise, it’s about as convincing as a kid putting on a different Halloween mask so he can get more candy, but this supposedly brilliant detective falls for it.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in a bad wig

Most of Ripley’s cons are earned. He doesn’t fool people by telling them what they want to hear—when he tries to compliment one of Dickie’s terrible paintings, we discover he kind of sucks at flattery—but by confirming their worst fears. He convinces Dickie that everyone trying to get close to him is a sponge or an emotional vampire. He gets Marge so worried that Dickie’s stopped loving her that she never stops to consider that her boyfriend might be dead. It’s painful to see such obvious lies working so well because Marge is a sweetheart and, in Zaillian’s conception, Dickie Greenleaf just isn’t that bad a person.

The Dickie of Highsmith’s novel is a glamorous but talentless poser. In Purple Moon, he’s a bully. Jude Law memorably played Dickie as someone who is both charismatic and cruel: he cheats on his girlfriend (and gets a local girl pregnant to boot), conspires with Tom to bleed money from his rich father, and finally cuts off ties with Ripley because he’s “boring.” This Dickie is practically begging for someone to bash in his skull and empty his bank accounts. By contrast, the Dickie of Ripley (played by singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn) is a basically okay guy who is slowly waking up to the knowledge that he’s a terrible artist. He’s considerate of Marge’s feelings. He turns away from Ripley not because he’s gotten bored, but because he’s seen and heard too many disturbing things about this guy who pretends to know him. When Ripley attacks him, he’s slow to realize that he’s about to be murdered: instead of fighting, he pleads with his friend to stop. This Dickey, had he lived, would have eventually married Marge and come home to work in his father’s shipbuilding business. Ripley’s ability to convince everyone—even Dickie’s own parents—that this very uncomplicated Dickie was a manipulative, cold, self-destructive killer is one of the series’ crueller ironies.

We will never be in this Ripley’s corner: we can’t be, and we shouldn’t. Steven Zaillian hammers this home with a style that’s deliberately designed to keep us at arm’s length. Except for one bright red spot of blood, the series is in crystalline black and white (Italy has never looked better without color). Whenever Ripley speaks to Italians, he speaks in Italian, placing barrier between him and his English-speaking audience. In early scenes, various tricks make us feel some sympathy for him—he trudges up endless flights of steps to reach Dickie’s villa, only to be told that Signor Greenleaf is all the way down on the beach, which obliges him to put on an uncomfortably revealing swimsuit. These moments are abandoned as Tom gets more agile on the steps and more comfortable in his social climbing. We increasingly watch him from the outside, as a rabbit might watch a snake.

This is a great adaptation of Highsmith’s novel—more nakedly honest about its character, and the nature of con artists in general, and therefore all the more painful to watch. It is a Ripley for our age of collective gaslighting: a time in which the voices we hear could be deepfakes, the images are likely AI-generated, and our cute cat memes are almost certainly created by Russian disinformation agents. These days, even the con artists are being conned. Ripley’s image of himself as an artistic murderer like his beloved Caravaggio is likewise a self-con.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley

He isn’t mad, bad, and dangerous to know the way Patricia Highsmith portrayed him. He isn’t a devious mastermind. He’s just a heartless grifter who befriends his victims.

All of which makes him the perfect villain for our times.

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