Tom Ripley Is a Negative Space: On Netflix’s “Ripley”

By Anna BogutskayaJune 8, 2024

Tom Ripley Is a Negative Space: On Netflix’s “Ripley”
WHO IS TOM RIPLEY? Steven Zaillian’s recent Netflix series adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s most infamous literary creation starts and ends on this question.

Ripley adapts the first of five books Highsmith dedicated to the exploits of the con artist–murderer-aesthete, and the portion of the story that has been reinterpreted the most: New York shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf hires the low-level grifter to travel to Europe and convince his vagabond son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) to return to the United States. Highsmith’s novel is a masterwork of crime writing, and Ripley is a chameleonic figure who has been interpreted, alternately, as a charming sociopath, a consummate con man, and a serial killer. He has been played by actors of dizzyingly different registers like John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game (2002), Dennis Hopper in The American Friend (1977), Barry Pepper in Ripley Under Ground (2005), Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960) and, perhaps most famously, Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

Andrew Scott is the latest and proves to have the most insidiously perfect take on Ripley. The Irish actor, who will be recognizable to many as the “Hot Priest” from Fleabag (2016–19), as well as the maniacal, screeching Moriarty on Sherlock (2010–17), just picked up awards for his performance in the film All of Us Strangers (2023) and the play VANYA, a new reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s classic. There’s little that ties his Ripley to previous Ripleys: Damon’s was lovelorn; Malkovich made him cunning; Hopper, bombastic; Delon’s was mean-spirited; and Pepper, let’s just not. Scott, meanwhile, possesses a soft-featured handsomeness that can “mold into ordinariness” at will. This Ripley is a negative space. He observes and absorbs. Scott’s performance dispenses with charm and charisma almost entirely, in fact, and throughout Ripley’s eight episodes, the character is mostly uncomfortable, ill at ease, and clawing.

Significantly, Ripley is the first adaptation of Highsmith’s character to depict “the unequivocal triumph of evil over good” that she thought her book explored; certainly, it’s the only adaptation that finds Ripley “rejoicing in it.” Ripley will always win. But neither the book nor the series gives us anything to hold on to. There is nothing to root for. Zaillian and Scott’s narrative, visual, and performance choices empty out Ripley of the charm and emotionality that drove previous adaptations. Here, Ripley is a slippery mask that doesn’t ever quite fit right. And in embracing the character’s elusiveness and refusing to make his emptiness attractive, Zaillian and Scott have given us the definitive on-screen Tom Ripley.

How to film a vacuum of personhood? Zaillian told Vanity Fair that the choice to film Ripley in black-and-white came to him early in the process, and was inspired, in part, by the black-and-white edition of the Ripley book he had on his desk. “As I was writing,” he said, “I held that image in my mind.” The black-and-white imagery strips Ripley’s story of the postcard beauty we’ve come to expect from previous adaptations. While the golden cinematography of Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley capture the sandy ease of wealthy American expats enjoying bright negronis and crystalline seawater, Zaillian didn’t “want to make a pretty travelogue.” And pretty it is not. While there is much to praise about the moody monochrome cinematography, it doesn’t distract. Ripley’s New York is a rusty compilation of ugly details: the rotten wood of the window, exposed wire covered by a sad little painting of a boat, an overflowing shower, a musty slab of soap, the noise of other people’s bowel movements. When he arrives in Italy, the Mediterranean water is black and inhospitable. It’s a graveyard, not a postcard.

Ripley indulges in repetition and the administrative details of criminality. The paperwork, the travel, and the negotiations are granted much screen time. It’s tedious work, conning people. When we first meet Tom Ripley, he’s running a small-time mail fraud, and constantly looking over his shoulder. It’s his frustration with petty paperwork grifts, rather than any fascination with Europe or love of art, that makes him accept Herbert Greenleaf’s mission. But Ripley is a quick study: by the second episode, he’s got conversational Italian down, and he understands the unspoken rules of Dickie’s lifestyle. And he’s a hard worker. This Ripley practices. He has to, in order to maintain his cover. His forgeries are a craft, and he carries his tools—stamps, glue, a rubber goop to forge passports—with him.

Ripley’s foreignness aids him. In a 1989 essay for Granta, Patricia Highsmith recalled the image that became the genesis of Tom Ripley: a young man walking alone on the beach in Positano, Italy, early in the morning, who “looked like a thousand other American tourists in Europe that summer.” Highsmith never met that man, but the image grew and expanded into the famous character. An American in Europe, becoming acquainted with the ways of living in Italy, France, and Germany, just like Highsmith herself had done. Europe as a concept, not a destination. It was freedom. In the same essay, the author recalls a secret sort of affinity for Europe, one “so deep and important that I might not wish or need to discuss it with friend or family.” I wonder if Zaillian read this very essay. His Ripley, too, looks out at the tiny beach of Atrani, which looks similar to the Positano that Highsmith looked upon, and sees a faraway, solitary figure. In Ripley, people who interact briefly with either Ripley or Dickie see them as interchangeable, just two Americans. His foreignness, ironically, allows him to blend in.

Highsmith’s Ripley holds good taste above everything else, and so does Zaillian’s. Ripley’s lack of refinement is palpable at first. He makes all the wrong choices, sartorially and otherwise (in the film, it’s the lime-green Speedos; in the series, the paisley robe), which puts him on the wrong foot with Marge Sherwood and Freddie Miles. Played in the film by Gwyneth Paltrow cosplaying Housewives of Mongibello, and in the series by a po-faced Dakota Fanning, Marge is as desperately oblivious to her lack of talent as Dickie is. She spends her days scribbling away at a memoir about her experiences in Atrani (which Ripley edits in a delightful montage of disdain) and eyeing Ripley suspiciously. He and Marge find each other equally repellent: he is too “vague” for her to grasp (some light-coded homophobia there) and she is tacky (he throws away the hand-knit scarf she makes for Dickie). As the series progresses, he starts to build up a new persona, one that feels truer to him than “Tom Ripley”: “This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person,” writes Highsmith. This new Tom Ripley is suave, well dressed, and well regarded, while Marge is condescended to by the Italian police and drinks too much at parties. And Dickie, well, he’s dead.

The murder of Dickie Greenleaf is a turning point for Ripley. It is his graduation from grifter to murderer and is one of the few constants of every interpretation of the text. In the book, it is semi-premeditated. Ripley conceives of this idea earlier, on the train (always the train with Highsmith), knowing that Dickie is going to politely excise him from his life, from his lifestyle: “He knew that he was going to do it, that he would not stop himself now, maybe couldn’t stop himself, and that he might not succeed,” writes Highsmith. The screen has always reinvented this moment for dramatic effect. In Purple Noon, Ripley stabs French Dickie (renamed Philippe Greenleaf, and portrayed by Maurice Ronet) in the heart, on Dickie’s own boat. A risky, impulsive decision. Ripley stages the murder as quietly rageful: neither man raises their voice, Dickie politely severs their relationship and Ripley’s bludgeoning of Dickie is wordless. He looks at Dickie’s ring, as if for confirmation to proceed before striking him in the head with the oar. It’s not about Dickie; it’s about his lifestyle, one that Ripley feels he deserves more than Dickie.

Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley interprets this moment as an emotional and moral upheaval, with Ripley pushed over the edge by Dickie’s ferocious rant. Jude Law’s Dickie is a petulant child who wreaks havoc with his limited attention span and oversized charm. His first interaction (and last) interaction with Ripley is bullish: he mocks his untanned skin (“Did you ever see a guy so white, Marge?”), his lack of refinement, his inability to ski, his obvious worship of Dickie. He is violently repelled by Ripley’s desire to be close to him at all costs. So, when the oar strikes his head, we understand. He calls him a “leech,” a “third-class mooch,” and, most damningly in Dickie’s mind, “boring.”

And, in Damon’s hands, he kind of is. ​​In a 1998 interview, the actor spoke about wanting Ripley’s “humanity to come across,” morphing him into someone who does not “ever manipulate anybody” and who “come[s] from a position of pure honesty all the time. He believes what’s happening and he believes the world he’s indulging in.” At this point in his career, Damon was always in the right place at the right time. Both he and Paltrow were Harvey Weinstein’s golden children. Damon, together with his co-writing buddy Ben Affleck, had just earned a best screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997) and Paltrow had picked up her statuette for best actress in Shakespeare in Love (1998), both Miramax releases. It makes sense with Damon’s persona and limitations that he would interpret Ripley as a beacon of honesty, an accidentally talented murderer. He was charming, but not electrically so, unlike Law. Politely handsome, unlike the beatific Alain Delon. Smart, but not obnoxious. His Ripley is a charmless striver looking for love, not money.

Minghella’s adaptation is beautiful, turning the story into an overtly queer text, leaning into Ripley’s identity as a closeted gay man in the 1950s who falls for the petty, vagabond Dickie. It works hard to carve out the humanity of Tom Ripley. The film even opens on a note of regret, with Ripley narrating: “If I could just go back, if I could rub everything out—starting with myself, starting with borrowing a jacket …” It’s a different register, and one that tints the entire film with a note of sick, inescapable sadness. In a different way, Ripley and Dickie were intertwined in Highsmith’s first sketches of the character. In her diary, in 1954, she sketched out a character that would, eventually, be split in two:

A young American, half homosexual, an indifferent painter, with some money from home through an income, but not too much. He is the ideal, harmless looking, unimportant looking, numerous enough, kind of individual a smuggling gang would make use of to handle their contacts, hot goods.


Minghella leans into this merging of identities visually, using mirrors and twisted reflections, all tinted with an overt, and one-sided, desire on Ripley’s part. In Minghella’s version, it’s Dickie who ruins Ripley, setting him on a path of lies and other murders to cover up that initial murder, which ends with him killing the one person, Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), who seemed to see good things in him. Ripley is desperately lonely, encased in shadows.

Zaillian’s Ripley, meanwhile, is all shadows. Gothic, even. This is where Tom Ripley feels most at home, alone but never lonely. Even in the dark, he is not corroded by the darkness that threatens Damon’s Ripley. This Ripley is on a journey towards comfort and beauty. Once he arrives in Italy, he is smitten not with Dickie himself but with the possibility of beauty and the tranquility that the Greenleafs’ money can afford him. If anything, Dickie Greenleaf is the least interesting character in Ripley. Johnny Flynn’s take is not rude, or irascible like Jude Law’s. He might even be considered kind, at times, although deeply, pathetically uninteresting. A laughably mediocre painter, Dickie doesn’t seem to care about much at all: not about his parents, his money, or Marge. When Ripley first meets Dickie and Marge, they are asleep, napping on an Italian beach. He casts a shadow over them. But Ripley is not particularly motivated by murder. It is, like most things, tedious, hard work. The disposal of Dickie (and, later on, of Freddie Miles) takes up more screen time than the murder itself. It is almost comically extended, including a little sit-down to rest after disposing of the corpse. After he bludgeons and disposes of Freddie (Eliot Sumner), Ripley has to go all the way back to the site where he dumped the body to retrieve an incriminating object. Ripley revels in repetition, in its protagonist treading the same steps repeatedly. It is through sheer dumb luck that he isn’t caught, not through his cleverness. And Ripley delights in the lucky tedium of Tom Ripley’s crimes.

The blandness of Dickie and his cohort’s characterization stands in sharp contrast with the undeniable, easy gorgeousness of their lives. Dickie’s villa overlooking the town, his marble floors, his Montblanc pen, and his Picasso, casually hanging in his study. They are so used to it all that they fail to see the value of it, or how intensely Ripley wants what they have, not who they are. Ripley never asks for anything, but in a rare moment of honesty—hidden in plain sight, buried in a rant against refrigerators—he talks about freedom. For Ripley, freedom is not just money but also the invisibility it can buy.

This Ripley covets symbols, things that will act as signifiers of the freedom that wealth can afford. Like the Ripley in the books, who is largely uninterested in sex, desire is not his driving engine. Instead, it’s covetousness. As Scott pointed out, Ripley has an “almost sensual relationship with things.” The moment Ripley walks into Dickie’s house, he comments, “Nice pen,” and promptly pockets it. Dickie doesn’t even notice. That pen casually reappears as Ripley alternates between signing his name or Dickie’s. The camera foregrounds objects, returning to the same ones over and over again, like a murderer returning to the scene of their crime: Dickie’s typewriter and signet ring, the glass ashtray. Every time he settles into a new room, Ripley lovingly sets out his things. He does not imbue them, however, with any sentimentality. He’s not keeping Dickie’s things because they remind him of Dickie, but because they’re nice things and he would like to have them. There is pleasure to be found in objects, as much as there is in art. In the last episode of Ripley, he is gifted Dickie’s ring by Herbert Greenleaf. His work is finished. He has killed Dickie twice over. And he gets to keep the ring. In the end, Tom Ripley is where he wanted to be: alone and surrounded by beautiful things. Dickie is just another object to him, and when he speaks of Dickie, he’s really talking about himself: “Everything about him was an act.”

Art critics speak of negative space as the area surrounding a subject. The brilliance of Ripley lies in how it understands Tom Ripley not as a subject possessed of rich interiority but as the oppressive, empty space that defines those around him. He is the darkness that overtakes Dickie, Marge, and Freddie. Beautiful things smooth out the rough edges of Tom Ripley. As the series progresses, and the Ripley we first meet is well and truly annihilated, something truer emerges: an impeccably dressed black hole.

LARB Contributor

Anna Bogutskaya is a film critic, author, and podcaster based in London. She has written two books on film: Unlikeable Female Characters: The Women Pop Culture Wants You to Hate (2023) and Feeding the Monster Why Horror Has a Hold on Us (2024). She hosts The Final Girls, a horror film history podcast.

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