In the movies, pathology and murder are often framed in deep shadow, as if horror only bloomed in dark places, but true epicureans of depravity know that cold creeps are coldest in the bright sunshine. The Talented Mr. Ripley -- based on the same 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel, the first in her "Ripley" series, that served as the basis for René Clément's Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon -- is awash in the sensual yellows and caramels of Naples and Venice and San Remo and Rome. It's a gorgeously unsettling film. You can hide in the shadows, but luminescence exposes who you are, and the only escape is into another identity.
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a kind of learning-on-the-job psychopath whose chief talent is slipping into the guises of others. In New York, he casually convinces Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, that the man's expatriate son, Dickie (Jude Law), was a Princeton classmate, which results in an offer from the father to travel to Italy and bring back the free-spending scion. But once ensconced in seaside Naples with Dickie and his expensive-looking blonde girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tom is in no hurry to wrap things up, and so, by revealing his mission, he becomes, in effect, a double agent. He makes himself over as Dickie, first by co-opting Dickie's dolce vita lifestyle and then by co-opting the man himself by murdering him.
Tom's capacity for impersonation at first seems like the survival tactic of a rube among the well-heeled, but it turns out to be his essence. Writer-director Anthony Minghella keeps Tom in virtually every scene; his switching of identities from Dickie to Tom and back again, and his narrow escapes, are breathtaking. By keeping everything centered on Tom, Minghella makes us complicit in the young man's pathology. He's the outsider on the inside; the deeper his infiltration, the more blood he spills and the more unreachable he becomes.
Though Tom is shown at various points to be racked with remorse, he's not really someone you can project yourself onto (unless he's meant to be Everyman as No Man). If Minghella intends to demonstrate how, given the right circumstances, any of us could slide into murder with a fairly clean conscience, then he underestimates the way Matt Damon in this film comes across as a vacuum (albeit a seductively robust and personable vacuum). The setting and even some of the themes of the film are distinctly Jamesian, but Tom is like an existential version of the Jackal from The Day of the Jackal; this cipher mutates into whatever puts him out of harm's way.
It's this free-floating dread under a hot summer sun, and not the film's cautionary-tale aspects, that takes hold. The actors seem to have been chosen for their ability to reflect the light. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, in particular, look like they were dipped in gold; the emollients of wealth have oiled them to a fine finish. The other performers, including Cate Blanchett as a textile heiress and the always marvelous Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie, Dickie's sneering upper-crust Princeton mate, bring some earth tones into all the blondeness. They seem to operate in a less hazy, more grounded world. It is Freddie who, with his instincts for the deceptions of the lowborn, roots out Tom in the film's most cloak-and-dagger-ish scene. The sequence probably belongs in a more conventional movie, and yet I'm not sorry it's here. We've been asked to identify so closely with the far-gone Tom that the intrusion of Freddie, with his sharp, rational suspicions, is a balm. He's someone we can get behind.
Too much should not be made of the cool amorality and character-doubling on display here. Although the film captures better than Purple Noon did the distinctive Highsmith tone of steady-state anxiety, it's essentially a glossy plaything of a thriller -- which is what the Alain Delon film was, too. Minghella brings out the homosexual subtext and erotic ambiguities in the material, and he heightens the class resentments, but make no mistake: The big draw here is the luxuriousness of corruption, and Minghella, for all his pretensions, is enough of a showman to know it.