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Original caricature by Jeff York of Andrew Scott as the title character in RIPLEY. (copyright 2024)

There’s something rather extraordinary at the core of the new Netflix miniseries RIPLEY, based upon the famed 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s what drives antihero Thomas Ripley (Andrew Scott) to covet the lifestyle of the rich. It has less to do with any glamour and glitz, or even access to Italian villas, fine dining, and tailored clothing, and all to do with sheer relief. The relief that comes from never having to worry about money, the nagging to make more of it, or living the fear of losing it. When con artist Tom Ripley reaches his status of privilege and money, he achieves a zen-like calm, even if he’s achieved his goals via notorious means. It’s access, sure, to better living, finer accommodations, and designer clothes, but mostly it seems to be access to peace of mind that this thief has never known.

And that’s why filmmaker Steven Zaillian’s eight-episode miniseries is so strong. It strips away all the easy things for an audience to drool over in it and concentrates on motive. Why does Tom do what he does? The landscapes and fine wines are incidental. It’s what having money does to his headspace that is dramatized here with such cleverness.

The story remains the same from the book and previous filmed adaptations: Tom Ripley is asked by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan) to convince his prodigal son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) to return to NYC from Italy. But Tom’s introduction to Dickie’s leisurely lifestyle in the coastal city of Atrani turns out to be catnip for his former college classmate.

Still, this is a film about cons and crimes, not country splendor and that is why Zaillian shot his adaptation in black and white. He doesn’t want the camera lusting over sunny days, tanned torsos, and electric nightlife like director Anthony Minghella did with his lingering shots of such things in 1999’s THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. In Minghella’s film, everything was glamorous, especially bronzed playboy Dickie (Jude Law) and his leonine girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). It was easy to see why the impressionable and naïve Tom (Matt Damon) would become so mesmerized. Heck, Damon all but played the character as a kid in a candy store, wanting to gorge himself on everything associated with the one percent.

Not Scott. He plays Tom as a desperate criminal who wants the calm that comes with a fat wallet. And  Johnny Flynn and Dakota Fanning, playing Dickie and Marge this go-round, are hardly worth putting on a pedestal. As directed by Zaillain, their rich characters are dead-eyed, soulless zombies. These two world travelers are not bright, nor personable, and far from gorgeous. What they are, are the type of entitled rich kids who sleepwalk through their lives of privilege, so used to daddy’s money that they aren’t impressed by it one iota.

And wow, is this couple lacking in any discernible talent. Dickie wants to be a painter but his work is simply awful, while would-be writer Marge’s poems and prose are wholly mediocre, as are the bland photographs she’s taken during her time in Atrani. Tom likes them less as people and more as aspirational figures; those who never have to scrape and claw to survive. These two dullards just sit around their homes all day with nary a worry. It’s a state of bliss that Tom would love to know. So much so, that he’ll kill to experience it.

The black and white cinematography is Zaillien’s way of showcasing how Ripley delineates his “have and have not” sensibilities. It’s also there to underline the miniseries noir-ish tendencies as once murder enters the frame, the remainder of the series becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Ripley and an intrepid Italian detective ((Maurizio Lombardi) on his trail. The black-and-white palate is also there to underline that this is essentially a dark comedy. It’s pretty funny watching Tom have to continue his life of labor once he starts killing people as it takes a ton of effort to dispose of bodies and keep track of his ever-mounting series of lies. The poor bastard was already huffing and puffing enough as it was simply following Dickie up and down the various staircases they encountered through the winding streets of the city, and now homicide is really making him put in the work!

At times, Scott’s performance recalls a jittery Anthony Perkins in his male ingenue days, but more often than not, his Tom is played close to the vest. Even when Dickie’s loutish friend Freddie (a scene-stealing Eliot Sumner) comes a calling, suspicious about why Dickie has disappeared, Scott’s Tom remains stone cold. And it’s darkly humorous how he returns a square, glass ashtray he weaponizes to its proper place on an end table. He adjusts it just so.

It’s always easy to vilify the rich, of course. and Hollywood has done it time and time again, from YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU in 1938 to SALTBURN this past Christmas. RIPLEY may be the third filmed adaptation of Highsmith’s classic book but I think it’s the best of all of them due to its slyly subtle nastiness and emphasis on Tom’s truest motive. Class warfare has rarely been as apparent as it is here, seen in black and white by both Tom and Zaillian’s camera.

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