Ripley Is a Waste of the Talented Mr Andrew Scott

Netflix’s new series Ripley, the latest iteration of Patricia Highsmith’s murderous con man from The Talented Mr Ripley, is an arty, inert snooze. Its flat portrayal of the title character doesn’t come close to the novels or other fantastic adaptations.

Andrew Scott in Ripley. (Netflix, 2024)

The response to the new Netflix series Ripley, the latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s extraordinary novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), is already sharply polarizing. Critics are either raving that it’s a work of genius and the best thing on television or dismissing it as a pretentious snore.

In the first episode, enraptured by the lustrous black-and-white cinematography, I thought I’d be in the first camp. But it didn’t take long until I’d shifted over to join the naysayers, watching the rest of the series with brooding impatience. Maybe I wouldn’t go as far as Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who marveled, “Writer-director Steven Zaillian made a series of decisions in creating his eight-part Netflix series, ‘Ripley,’ and every one of those decisions was wrong.”

But I’d certainly argue that Zaillian, best known as the screenwriter of many big films like Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Awakenings, Gangs of New York, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and The Irishman, as well as HBO’s The Night Of, has made one of those slow, static, deadening high-production-value works that wow the prestige TV snobs but leave the rest of us cold.

A word about that much-discussed black-and-white cinematography. At first, the imagery — shot by Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to guy Robert Elswit — seems so thrillingly crystalline, you assume it must be revealing something rare and meaningful. In the early scenes, when Tom Ripley is living a low-rent life as a small-time con man in New York City, he’s repeatedly shown half drowned in shadow, framed in darkly entrapping doorways and windows and mirrors, and caught in the paranoia-inducing stares of other isolated men. It’s an intensely noirish use of stark urban imagery, and it’s beguiling for a while. Ripley has to emigrate to Italy to get out of all those tight frames just so he can move around freely.

But once in Europe, the elaborate shooting style becomes more and more decoratively inert. You could cut an hour or two out of the overlong series just by editing down some of the close-up montages of Italian art and architecture. It’s plenty clear from the start that Italy is the perfect place for Ripley to lose himself in his delusion that he’s leading the life of a true aesthete, without this incessant visual nudging. But Zaillian can’t leave it alone. Twice he shows us Ripley buying the identical heavy-bottomed square-cut glass ashtray that he fusses over as an art object perfectly suited for his home decor. He leaves the first ashtray behind after using it to beat someone to death. Thereafter, any time Ripley reaches for the second version of the ashtray while in conversation with someone who’s asking too many questions, you sigh, “I guess it’s murder time again.”

Zaillian also makes much solemn use of the way Ripley identifies with the artist Caravaggio after finding out Caravaggio murdered someone and had to live out the rest of his life on the run, painting masterpieces along the way. There’s even a flashback to 1606 near the end of the series, to drive home the heavy-handed parallel between Caravaggio and Ripley. But there’s a distractingly powerful problem with this analogy — Tom Ripley is a murderer, but he’s certainly no artist, not even an artist at murder, since he never fails to make a messy botch of it, leaving the cops a hundred clues, though they’re never smart enough to catch him. Presuming that’s the point — that Ripley loves the silly idea of himself as a murderer-artist — Zaillian negates any interest it might have by nagging you relentlessly about it, creating scene after scene of Ripley gazing with fatuous admiration at Caravaggio’s paintings.

The incredibly slow pace is partly due to Zaillian’s apparent conviction that the real fascination of The Talented Mr Ripley is the way it works as a crime procedural. We get a granular level of detail about how Ripley kills then cleans up the scene of the crime, even though Ripley doesn’t exactly have any fascinating methods. He just batters people to death with handy blunt objects, then finds fairly crude ways to stash the bodies until he can get away and figure out how to misdirect the cops. Ripley succeeds at crime because he’s so audacious at it, people can’t believe such things could happen. In general, he’s relying on a far more conventional and trusting mid-twentieth-century world of middle- to upper-class people who aren’t exactly savvy about something as seedy as crime.

Plus he’s got the most incredible luck. He’s so plainly the murderer, so obviously the suspicious person living under the assumed identity of one of his victims, you find yourself getting impatient with the way nobody can put two and two together. At first, the way Ripley keeps shifting between two different identities is promising. But again, Zaillian opts to focus on the procedural aspect by giving significant screen time to the investigative process of Inspector Pietro Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi). Lombardi is elegant and talented, but it’s still dull as hell over so many hours.

And dull is the last word you’d tend to apply to adaptations of the so-called “Ripliad,” the four Highsmith novels centered upon sociopathic killer Tom Ripley, which are known for their wonderfully sick fascination. From René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960) with Alain Delon as the most beautiful, mesmerizing, and vengeful of the Ripleys through Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) with its ultrasympathetic take on Ripley (played by cornfed Matt Damon) as a basically sweet but closeted gay man so tortured by his own longings he’s driven to murder, there are any number of ways you can go with this lurid material.

Zaillian’s take sounded fairly promising in interviews. He wanted to underscore the film noir qualities of the material, hence the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography. And he wanted the extra time a series afforded to focus our attention on Andrew Scott as Ripley, because Scott is well known to be compulsively watchable.

Scott has entranced us all for years with the range and daring of his performances. He was genuinely scary as brilliant, malevolent young Moriarty in the Sherlock series, more than a match for Benedict Cumberbatch as the scintillating young Holmes. He was sweetly affable and highly corruptible as the “hot priest” in Fleabag. He’s just dazzled viewers as the lonely, haunted screenwriter working through childhood trauma in the independent film All of Us Strangers. Overall, he’s been giving compelling performances for thirty years on stage and screen.

So it’s very tempting to stick with Andrew Scott in spite of the obdurate blank wall of his performance. He’s gifted enough that he can sometimes overcome Zaillian’s slow and unrevealing approach and fascinate us regardless, but he seems to be giving us a version of Ripley that keeps us from any sense of who he is beyond an isolated con man craving the posh life and willing to do anything to get it. If that’s all he is, there’s no reason to watch his every move for eight solid episodes.

Given his chameleonic performance skills, it seems like heresy to say so, but a significant part of the problem is that Andrew Scott is simply miscast.

At age forty-seven, he’s twenty years too old for the part, and there’s no use pretending he looks vastly younger — every close-up showing his receding hairline and the puckering around his eyes and the parenthetical lines developing around his mouth gives his age away. It’s also no use claiming that making the character significantly older just adds another layer of desperation to his fanatical struggle up the economic and social ladder. The Talented Mr Ripley is about twenty- and thirtysomethings adrift in the postwar world, though whether pleasantly or unpleasantly adrift is dependent on their class status. Making these people practically middle-aged — Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf is forty-one — skews the narrative in a bizarre way that encourages incredulity at every turn.

It’s also a huge distraction that Scott, bless him, has a tendency to look like a peeved goblin. His chosen way of playing Ripley accentuates that appearance. He stares unblinkingly at people with his sharklike black eyes, and far from being able to charm them with his ordinary-guy eagerness to please, early in the film he’s so stiff and creepy he appears to be exactly what he is — a grimly maladjusted headcase. No rich, openhanded father like Herbert Greenleaf (played by acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) is going to mistake Scott’s version of Tom Ripley for a buddy of his popular layabout son Dickie — a trust-fund kid reveling in his freedom and refusing to come home to learn the shipbuilding business — much less send this Ripley on an all-expenses-paid trip overseas to bring Dickie home. And no Dickie Greenleaf is going to befriend this glumly rigid Tom Ripley or welcome him into his hilltop Italian villa.

Only Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning), Dickie’s girlfriend, seems correct in hating this Ripley at first sight and suspecting him of malicious intent. But that gives Marge nowhere to go as a character beyond staring accusingly at Ripley in scene after scene. Only very belatedly does she reveal herself, in this version of the character, to be a creepy user herself, capitalizing on Dickie’s death to further her own career as a remarkably talentless writer in a way that allows sociopathic Ripley to rebuke her from the moral high ground.

In the final analysis, we can’t blame the actors. Zaillian wrote and directed the series this way, blocking us from any compelling sense of what’s going on with Tom Ripley. In the novels, we’re embedded with Ripley via third-person-limited narration throughout. And surely the most devastating quality of Ripley is his obsessive way of narrating his life, combined with the fact that he fundamentally doesn’t know himself, can’t face himself. His lowly class origins and his uncertain sexuality are knotted together in such a tight weave of self-loathing, he skates away from them in pursuit of a “higher” aestheticized persona he recognizes as a possibility when he meets Dickie. It’s not enough for him to admire and imitate and even love Dickie — ultimately, he has to become Dickie which means Dickie has to die.

Here’s a sample of how the book creates the tension between what Ripley does and what Ripley thinks about it all. At a certain point after he’s been living in luxury as the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf, Ripley is forced to return to his Tom Ripley identity in order to throw the police off his trail. Though he accomplishes this smoothly enough to get away scot-free, his reaction to this necessity is telling:

This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown. . . . He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.

It’s such a vivid way of representing self-hatred, the old self eagerly shucked off and seen as so degraded, it can’t be taken on again without contamination. All the money and fancy living in the world can’t make the identity of Tom Ripley bearable. But in the series, this experience is hardly a blip. Ripley assumes his old identity without a flinch and carries on. Ripley, Greenleaf — whatevs! Either way, he still has his cool square-cut glass ashtray.

It was one of Highsmith’s best and favorite effects in several of her novels, this kind of immersion through third-person narration into the consciousness of a highly observant yet self-deluded protagonist who seems to stumble and fall into murder. In Highsmith’s beautifully written This Sweet Sickness (1960), her antihero is convinced he’s living out a complex and passionate mutual love affair with a married woman, so deep in rationalizations he’s unable to recognize the fact that he’s actually an obsessed stalker. Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), has many of the same key elements as The Talented Mr Ripley. Its protagonist is a fastidious and ambitious young architect trying to cleanse himself of his rural working-class background. Everything he hates about his past self is represented by the earthy first wife he’s trying to divorce so he can marry an upper-class woman so refined she’s like a beautiful objet d’art.

Then he meets a rich young vulgarian on a train who proposes that they “swap murders.” Soon his wife is dead and the onus is on him to kill the other man’s father. He can’t recognize in his attraction-repulsion to the other man that the other man is a kind of doppelganger. Only with the death of his double does he realize he’s lost his only chance to be seen and known for who he really is in the world.

In short, you’ve got to do something to reveal the complex inner life of Tom Ripley, even if you don’t resort to voice-over narration. (And so far, no filmmaker has.) You can do something quite extreme and still make it work, as in the case of Wim Wenders, who adapted the last of the Ripliad novels, Ripley’s Game (1974). Wenders called his version The American Friend (1977) and cast Dennis Hopper in the title role. Hopper’s Ripley is a kind of representative American, signaled by the absurdly outsized Stetson hat he wears, a macho signifier contradicted by his needy, touchy, manic relationship to a self-contained, terminally ill picture-framer played by the always-magnificent Bruno Ganz. This Ripley, who lives by running art forgery scams and other art-related cons in Europe, is so upset when he’s initially snubbed by the picture-framer at a social event, he sets out to ruin what’s left of the man’s life with his typically elaborate schemes and lies.

At the same time, Ripley ends up gradually befriending the picture-framer, and they enter into one of Highsmith’s patented queasy-making relationships with boundaries between them constantly shifting and sliding in ways that are going to be fatal for somebody. Even Highsmith was won over by Wenders’s and Hopper’s off-the-chain way of portraying Ripley, disliking it at first and then becoming persuaded by it in subsequent viewings.

Still, for those who are unfamiliar with the Ripley novels and addicted to true crime narratives of the posher sort, this series might seem like some sort of revelation. With its fancy cinematography and high-toned Italian settings and solemn acting style and glacial pace, it practically beats you over the head with its bid to be received as art. Tom Ripley armed with his ashtray couldn’t beat you any harder.