Credit: Lorenzo Sisti/Netflix
by Selina Lee Featured Film Streaming Scene

Ripley — Steve Zallian

April 8, 2024

Does pop culture really need another Tom Ripley adaptation? That’s a fair question, considering just a couple of summers ago the fashion world was ablaze with breezy knit polos, with everyone from Vogue to GQ directly citing Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) as style inspo. Suddenly, every other dude in Williamsburg looked like a trust fund baby fresh off a month in the Amalfi coast (which, actually, probably wasn’t far off). But whereas Minghella’s film was awash in sun-drenched warmth and the understated magnetism of its three baby-faced leads, Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s new series Ripley is a decidedly darker affair. 

As in novelist Patricia Highsmith’s source material, Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) is a grifter hired by a shipping magnate to travel to Italy and convince his layabout son to return home. Mr. Greenleaf is under the mistaken impression that Tom and his son, Dickie (Johnny Flynn), are old chums. They are, at best, distant acquaintances, but Tom ingratiates himself so completely into Dickie’s carefree life that even his girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning) is eventually sidelined. Tom the Glom, you could call him, and that’s before he bashes his friend’s face with a boat oar and steals his signet ring, engraved watch, and identity.  

Shot in stark black-and-white, Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) pay equal attention to the beautiful life that Tom feels he deserves, and the petty desperation he leaves behind. His grimy SRO in lower Manhattan, where the show opens, is a far cry from the increasingly upscale pensioni where his cons eventually take him, but the origin story isn’t presented as a ploy for sympathy. In fact, there’s little about him that’s sympathetic at all. Unlike typical antiheros, who know they can coast on a combination of charisma, good looks, and charm (even Tony Soprano loved animals), Tom possesses none of these qualities. Instead, this is a character study in which someone already deeply unpleasant walks so far down the road to perdition that when he reaches his final form, it’s more of an inevitable culmination than a narrative arc. 

This laser focus — or, some might say, tunnel vision — makes Tom ruthlessly efficient as a conman but rather trying as a protagonist. He’s calculating and manipulative, but not exactly fun to spend time with. Instead, Tom is the guy who blithely brings the Camorra to your living room; he’s a fixer and forger, a fraudster of remarkable versatility; in other words, someone useful to know but unwise to befriend. By shedding his original skin — and, perhaps along with it, the deeply-buried burden of his original sin; his homosexuality is never stated outright but heavily hinted at — he can make himself respectable in the eyes of “straight” society. A sort of innate opportunism takes him to Italy without a second thought, but his self-loathing is what compels him to pick up the oar.

And yet what’s perhaps most fascinating about Scott’s portrayal in Ripley is how boring Tom is. He’s not a criminal mastermind or one-man crack team; in most social situations, he’s barely noticeable, as vague and brackish as pond water. Instead of probing for interiority, these eight episodes spend an inordinate amount of time lingering on surfaces, as if leaning into the superficiality of Tom’s social striving. Paintings, especially Caravaggio’s evocative chiaroscuro, figure heavily, as do minor but portentous details like blood splatters on marble floors. He seems more preoccupied by the process of murder — the cleaning of leaking fluids, the heaving of uncooperative bodies — than the consequences. When he succeeds in dispatching Freddie Miles (Eliot Sumner), Dickie’s overly inquisitive friend, the actual death is over in a few seconds. The rest of the episode follows Tom as he traverses Rome to get rid of the body — in fact, he doesn’t even try to hide it — then back again to retrieve Freddie’s identification, all the while no doubt arousing the suspicions of various cabbies who shepherd him to the outskirts of town and back again in the dead of night. Would a professional have made such a careless mistake or risk exposing himself to so many potential witnesses? No, and yet Tom is a professional, in a way. Like all of us in a new job, he’s learning as he goes. That dedication to his craft is what makes this Tom so unsettling, and Scott’s portrayal so chillingly effective.

DIRECTOR: Steve Zallian;  CAST: Andrew Scott, Johnny Flynn, Dakota Fanning, Eliot Sumner, John Malkovich;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  STREAMING: April 4