Director: Anthony Minghella, 1999 (R)
Two years after winning an Oscar for Directing the hugely successful The English Patient, Anthony Minghella helmed this vehicle and was nominated for another Oscar, this time for Best Adapted Screenplay (from the book by Patricia Highsmith). Like his previous film, this movie moves slowly but methodically, merging suspense with drama to form a low-key thriller with a terrific jazz score and decadent mood.
From the opening scene we find Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) a man who wears masks. In this scene, though, it is simply a borrowed blazer to allow him to play piano at a party. But this mild deception causes the lavatory attendant with delusions of grandeur to be mistaken for a Princeton grad. When Mr. Greenleaf approaches him with this mistake, Tom plays along and finds himself being offered $1000 to go to Italy to find Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, Side Effects), another Princeton grad. But Dickie is a rich kid who enjoys wasting his father’s allowance on jazz records and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). A cut to the Mediterranean scene and we see Dickie sunning himself with Marge, lazily lounging on the beach.
En route via luxury liner, Tom meets Meredith (Cate Blanchett, The Hobbit), another rich kid off to enjoy Europe. She is travelling under a different name and will later bump into him and set off a chain of events that will cause Tom to grow ever more deceptive.
Deception is one of the themes of the film, along with moral degeneration. In one of his first meetings with Dickie, he is asked what his singular talent is. Tom replies to his supposed former college buddy, “Forging signatures, telling lies and impersonating almost anyone.” Laying out the truth here allows him to be accepted by Dickie and lays the groundwork for future deceit.
The sad thing is the moral rationalization going on in Tom’s head, which we are privy to: “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” Tom clearly starts off thinking he is not a bad person, just one who has some odd talents. But the Bible says otherwise: “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). We deceive even ourselves with this kind of thinking. The Psalmist understood this and declared, “Surely I was sinful at birth” (Psa. 51: 5). We can convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but the truth stands out darkly in contrast. We are sinful and deceitful from the very start.
Tom is a prime example. A poor kid, he dreams of riches. More than this, though, he wants to trade in his boring identity and character for someone more interesting and exciting. So, to slither his way into Dickie’s inner circle, he learns jazz as a common interest and shows this at the ultimate moment to go from acquaintance to new best friend. And although he wins over Dickie he fails to account for two things. First, Dickie is fickle and will cast off a friend just as quickly as he takes them to his bosom. Second, there is Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catching Fire), another decadent, gastronomic friend. Freddie, unlike Dickie, is less trusting and can see through Tom’s character.
As Tom gets closer and closer to Dickie, he studies him as a predator would his prey. It even seems that Tom is confused as to whether he wants to love Dickie or be Dickie. But when Dickie spurns Tom’s casual homosexual advance and later reneges on a holiday promise, Tom realizes he wants more of the rich lifestyle than he can get as Ripley. He wants to live Dickie’s life as Dickie.
Tom’s character shows how an initial “white lie” can begin a journey of descent, into deceit, dark lying and murder. This slippery slope begins with lying lips. And “The Lord detests lying lips” (Prov. 12:22). But it all starts in the heart: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mk. 7:21).
As the movie unfolds, Tom moves from the coast of Italy to Rome where he takes on Dickie’s identity and digs himself deeper into deceit. There are several super suspenseful scenes, centered on Tom almost being discovered in his lies. But Tom evolves, growing cleverer, learning to improvise on the fly with lightning-fast thinking. Though he is a monster, he is intelligent and charming. And since we see from his perspective we are drawn into his schemes. But we also realize how alone he is.
At one point, Tom says, “Don’t you just take the past, and put it in a room in the basement, and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.” He has sealed off the past, including his sins, in a room he wants to avoid. But that means he cannot share his true being with another. He finally recognizes this: “I know. I’m lost, too. I’m going to be stuck in the basement, aren’t I, that’s my . . . terrible, and alone, and dark, and I’ve lied about who I am, and where I am, and now no one will ever find me.” His destiny stands before him: a dark bottomless chasm.
This is perhaps the best definition of lostness in movie history. As Tom verbalizes it, we can picture that dark, lonely basement, with the certainty that no one else will visit it.
Because of our sinful nature, we are all lost before God. We have our own dark basements we dwell in, seemingly safe and secure from the whole world. But this is not security and safety; rather, it is hell. Alone, separate from all humanity and even from the God of humanity. With no one to know us, there is no one to love us. We cannot share our humanity with another. This is terrible and a terror reserved for the darkest corners of hell indeed (2 Pet. 2:4).
But the God of humanity declared, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). Despite our self-righteous self-deceit, Jesus came to rescue us from our basements. He understands our plight. He came as a no one, an illegitimate son of a carpenter, born in a dirty stable. But in taking on our flesh and carrying our sins to the cross, he gives us a chance to put on his cloak. We can clothe ourselves in Jesus (Rom. 13:14). We can call ourselves a brother with Christ. We can identify with Jesus. And in so doing, we find a new identity, one that decries deception and murder, one that pours forth virtue and life. We can find ourselves talented with his divine talents. But only if we put on his blazer.
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs