Religion & Liberty Online

Ripley and the Art of the Cruel

(Image credit: Netflix)

A new adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel starring Andrew Scott as the titular “hero” may be just the story for our time about our time.

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Patricia Highsmith’s novels have a long history in Hollywood. Her debut, Strangers on a Train, was adapted in 1951 by Hitchcock into a remarkable thriller about corruption among the wealthy and the weaknesses of aspiring to success, with D.C. in the background. Her most famous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley, however, was adapted in Hollywood only in 1999, in a much admired movie starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. This is no doubt because its protagonist is a successful and unrepentant murderer. Hollywood used to censor such immorality, but we don’t live in that America anymore.

Most adaptations of Highsmith before that one were made in Europe. Since, we’ve had The Two Faces of January (2014), Carol (2015), Deep Water (2022), all involving stars, as well as two other adaptations of Ripley novels, Ripley’s Game(2002) and Ripley Under Ground (2005). This is not to say that Highsmith’s taste for amorality is very strong now, but it is noticeable; nor on the other hand do her stories seem subversive now, since our moral demands and assumptions have changed so much.

And now Netflix offers an eight-episode miniseries, Ripley, starring Andrew Scott and Dakota Fanning, an adaptation significantly closer to the novel than the 1999 movie and with a very different sensibility. To recapitulate, in 1961 a small-time crook, Tom Ripley, mostly engaged in forgeries, is hired by a Mr. Greenleaf to go to Italy to persuade his son, Dickie, to return to America and assume his responsibilities, to join the family business. Greenleaf is deluded that Ripley went to school with his son, and Ripley needs the money. This might lead to a redemption story in someone else’s hands; in this case, it’s damnation: Ripley first befriends, then quarrels with, and eventually kills Dickie only to later impersonate him and get away with his wealth.

Ripley’s story is about the conflict between two demands of human flourishing: work and the arts. The Greenleaf family is very respectable, WASP, but son Dickie rebels in a charming ’50s sort of way against his father, preferring Southern Italy to New York, painting and writing to the shipbuilding business. Ripley is an in-between figure who shows how the rupture between the generations could lead to an ugly new future, which is to an extent our present, the embracing of freedom without morality, based on the rejection of both principles. He has the calculating mind required for work but also a love of beautiful works of art. He has a talent for imitation, so he can to an extent please both generations. He embodies the arts as deceptions, offering the illusion of morality and thereby attempting to prove that morality is nothing but illusion. The unusual choice is to show how art might triumph over work and reduce acquisition to violence instead of productivity.

Why then is Ripley offered to us as a likely protagonist? He’s a nobody who loves all the luxuries he sees the wealthy enjoy while knowing he’s more cunning than they are. Not far from a lefty revolutionary, of which the 20th century offered all too many examples, but more honest, and therefore more self-seeking. That’s the warning of this spectacle, the dangers posed by envy of wealth if it awakens a kind of claim to rule, a semblance of democracy, since everyone potentially envies the wealthy. Then it becomes jealousy of a kind and makes possible crimes of passion.

Unusually, the miniseries has only one writer and director for all eight episodes, Steven Zaillian, who won the Oscar for writing Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and has since been nominated for a number of scripts, most recently, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. This makes for a unity of vision and an attempt to achieve cinematic effects almost always lacking in our TV shows. Every choice emphasizes this attempt, from the black-and-white cinematography, which makes ’60s Italy much more credible (perhaps also because we mostly see the past in black and white), to the use of close-ups and a kind of intellectual montage that emphasizes Ripley’s state of mind.

Ripley adds an artistic concern not present in the novel: Caravaggio, his story and his paintings, appears from beginning to end, a painter who lived a very tumultuous life and died a mysterious death, young, possibly murdered. That somehow puts together Ripley and his friend and victim Dickie. There is no attempt to re-create the allure of the Renaissance. Instead, the story as a whole seems to be a reflection on the predicament of the artist, who from a certain point of view is a traitor to his friends and even a murderer, doing what is necessary or expedient to achieve success, unable to believe in the things he sells to the patrons, on whom he can never forget he depends, and finally alone.

Another eccentric choice is the casting of Andrew Scott to play Ripley. Scott rose to fame playing Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock Holmes series. That attention-grabbing performance was an embarrassment; his performance as Ripley is much better, yet he is at least 20 years too old. The cinematography helps the problem, but the confidence of the director is what really makes the difference. The overall effect is to emphasize the concern with art and abandon some of the demands for plausibility we usually make. This deserves applause and suggests that our turn away from cinema to TV could yield beautiful work.

Let me conclude by offering an excuse, if no justification is possible, for this kind of art. We like to think of the world as brimming with opportunity or, in the jargon of the economists, as a positive-sum game. But there are some things which are not positive-sum, especially obvious in what is called “the attention economy.” Prestige and glamour obviously have that character, and Ripley makes quite an effort to show their effect on all its main characters; beauty could prove tyrannical. If Ripley is understood as trying to define himself, to achieve a marked individuality, then maybe our times really encourage a kind of cruelty.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.