Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Matt Damon’s signature performance is the chameleon at the center of iThe Talented Mr. Ripley/i

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Identity Thief has us thinking about movie characters operating under false identities.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Early in Matt Damon’s career, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane quipped that Damon couldn’t pass for Cary Grant’s bellboy, much less a leading man, but it’s precisely that quality that makes him so fascinating as an actor. He’s compelling in films like The Bourne Identity, Good Will Hunting, and The Informant! because he’s a restless, half-formed person who sets about becoming someone he isn’t—a covert super-spy, a janitor turned savant mathematician, a bland middle manager who carries himself like a secret agent. To that end, The Talented Mr. Ripley may be his signature role, casting him as Patricia Highsmith’s master chameleon Tom Ripley, who insinuates himself into a friend’s glamorous life only to take over it completely.


Highsmith’s novel had been adapted beautifully before in 1960’s Purple Noon, but writer-director Anthony Minghella opts to trade the earlier film’s studied cool for a more emotional Ripley, driven by sublimated passion. Commissioned by an American industrialist to persuade his son (Jude Law) to end his nonstop Italian holiday and come back to the states, Damon’s Ripley instead goes along for the ride, making himself a third wheel to Law and his girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow). When things go sour, a crime of passion leads to a change in identity that he’s cunning enough to pull off, but it becomes its own kind of prison. Hot off The English Patient, Minghella shoots The Talented Mr. Ripley in the same luxuriating style, basking in the sun-dappled beauty of ’50s San Remo and Venice while registering Damon’s troubled soul as it shifts from infatuation to murder. He also gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a plum supporting role as another trust-fund baby who sniffs out Damon’s imposter immediately and torments him for sport. Minghella’s decision to extend some sympathy to Highsmith’s sociopath riled some critics, but its gives his Ripley the pull of tragedy, of a “talented” man who’s on the run from his true self.

Availability: No streaming sources outside Amazon—where it’s currently free for Prime members—but it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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