Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.
I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.
Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.
Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.