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Ripley review: Netflix’s terrifically tense thriller

A man looks away from 2 cops in Ripley.
Ripley review: Netflix’s terrifically tense thriller
“Every shot in Ripley looks fit for the gallery”
Pros
  • The beautiful cinematography
  • Andrew Scott's creepy performance
  • Ripley remains an all-time great character
Cons
  • Not quite a match for the 1999 movie
  • No surprises for Ripley fans

The role of Tom Ripley poses a certain challenge for any actor looking to step into the loafers of literature and cinema’s great con man. When it comes to the covetous and duplicitous forger at the center of five Patricia Highsmith bestsellers, how blank is too blank? Alain Delon, the French movie star who first played the character on the big screen in Purple Noon, made him a coolly immoral cipher — all sociopathic ambition, few traces of humanity. Decades later, Matt Damon took a very different tact in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the same novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. He boldly recast Tom as a tragic figure, a closeted charlatan whose murderous machinations spring from his festering feelings of rejection and inadequacy. Both interpretations killed.

So, too, does the one Andrew Scott offers in Ripley, the gorgeously sinister new Netflix miniseries based — like those other adaptations — on the first of the Ripley books. Somewhere between Delon’s cold-bloodedness and Damon’s suppressed anguish lies the creepy, ever-so-slightly off ingratiation of this Ripley. Now in his mid-40s, Scott is older than the twentysomething Highsmith first described. But maybe those extra years merely reinforce the conception of Ripley as someone slippery in all details of identity, a man delivering a mere performance of boyish charm. In his own way, Scott — the hot priest of Fleabag, the Moriarity of Sherlock — comes closer to Ripley as written: a cheerfully accommodating leech whose smiles and stares linger a little too long.

Ripley | Official Trailer | Netflix

Created, written, and directed by Steve Zaillian, the Hollywood screenwriter who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List, this is a show every bit as elegant as its balmy European backdrop. The velvety, pristine luster of the black-and-white imagery is the first thing you notice. Every shot in Ripley looks fit for the gallery. Maybe it’s no great feat, tickling retinas with the architecture and lush seaside scenery of midcentury Italy; you’d really have to try to get something drably unappealing from that view. But with cinematographer Robert Elswit behind the camera, Ripley achieves a starkly foreboding beauty: all the enticing luxury and glamour of the Mediterranean as experienced through the coldly calculating eyes of someone willing to do anything to make it his own.

Such visual pleasure doesn’t diminish easily. Even the infamously unforgiving video compression of the world’s most popular streaming platform can’t soften its sharp edges or dim its Golden Age glow. No Netflix original has ever looked this good, which makes sense, as Ripley didn’t start as one. It was developed for Showtime, with all the resources and pedigree that the intended landing place confers. Why in the world would the premium cable channel sell off something so exquisitely crafted? Maybe execs couldn’t see the signature Showtime sizzle — that promise of cheap titillation — in a thriller this classical.

Andrew Scott looks out at an extravagant ocean view in a black-and-white still from Ripley
Andrew Scott in Ripley Netflix / Netflix

If you’ve read the 1955 novel or seen the previous adaptations, you know the shape of Ripley. It faithfully commences with Tom, whose petty Manhattan scams have put him on the radar of the IRS, being mistaken for a close Princeton confidant of shipping-magnate scion Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf. Dickie’s wealthy father, played by filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, convinces Ripley to travel to Italy on the magnate’s dime and talk the aimless socialite into returning to New York. The journey affords our anti-hero the opportunity to cosplay wealth until he gets an insatiable taste for it. Zaillian underscores the class envy at every turn, casting a long climb of stairs as a symbol for upward mobility and having Tom betray his poor-orphan origins through such telltale giveaways as a tacky bathrobe he mistakes for the height of taste.

Naturally, Ripley is seduced by the nonstop vacation he crashes upon arriving in the Italian resort town of Mongibello. As played by Johnny Flynn, who was David Bowie in the unauthorized biopic Stardust, Dickie is a relaxed leisure brat — the kind of rich kid so wanting for nothing that he can’t be bothered to get worked up about anything. Not even Tom’s plain, one-sided attraction — a desire to be with Dickie that might actually be a desire to simply be him — warrants any apparent fretting. He’s much more chill than the boisterous and callously fickle Dickie we got from Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Maybe too chill: It’s hard to imagine anyone falling too hard under the sway of this laidback playboy. While Dickie evinces a general indifference, his casual live-in lover and fellow American Marge (Dakota Fanning) emits her growing distrust of their new housemate straight out the eyes. She can see through his imitations, the lies he tries on for size.

Three people sit around a table in Ripley.
Netflix

Of course, something eventually rocks the boat. Again, Ripley doesn’t go anywhere past takes on the novel haven’t already. It just takes the scenic coastal route and sticks closer to the finer details of Highsmith’s novel, like Dickie’s flirtation with painting and an encounter with a mobster. The Minghella version, with its powerhouse cast and dramatic liberties, remains the richest Ripley. It added and subtracted subplots to find something freshly devastating — the loneliness of a double life, the wounded heart of a masquerade — in its source material. Zaillian approaches that classic with more reverence and less imagination; he’s content building to Highsmith’s blueprint rather than using it as a jumping-off point for something more daring.

Yet there’s a reptilian urgency to his faithful Ripley, which plays like a sleek spy thriller with a budding psychopath at its center. The show is maximalist in running time but minimalist in style, matching its subject’s methodical actions with a crisply cut presentation of events and sparing use of music. Spreading the story across eight hour-long episodes allows Zaillian to luxuriate in the luxury of the life Tom wants and to tease out a procedural fascination in his stumble onto a very dark path. One episode is devoted to a violent crime and the dryly comic, haphazard cleanup. Part of the tension of the series lies in how Ripley’s single-minded pursuit of his goals — his twisted version of self-actualization — collides with the imperfection of his methods. He’s a master criminal in the making, a self-made monster not quite made.

A man rides an elevator in Ripley.
Netflix

The wicked magnetic pull of any Tom Ripley story is the way the audience becomes implicated in his schemes. Simply sharing his vantage creates a kind of queasy identification, a warped empathy. So does the relatability of his hunger for the finer things; anyone who’s ever gazed upon the Dickie Greenleafs of the world with a certain mixture of jealousy and contempt can grasp the fantasy of Tom’s actions. On some perverse level, we want to see him get away with it. Ripley taps right into that desire, using its protracted running time to draw us slowly but steadily into a kind of conspiracy.

Highsmith could, through her prose, put us inside Tom’s head. By the time his thoughts had hardened into a savage plan — ambition emerging from resentment, a nightmare distortion of bootstraps perseverance taking shape — we were already silent accomplices. That’s an element hard to reproduce for the screen. But Zaillian has an ace up his sleeve in Scott, a star capable of expressing a vast internal world, often without words at all. Last year, he made heartbreaking use of that skill in All of Us Strangers, baring his soul through the most achingly vulnerable performance of the year. Only a few months later, Scott has done something almost trickier: He’s helped us see the turning wheels of Tom Ripley’s logic without letting his mask of geniality ever slip.

Ripley premieres on Netflix on Thursday, April 4. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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