Do Gay, Be Crime: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)

When you're both on a boat and one guy's skull gets smote, that's-a Ripley

Do Gay, Be Crime: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
The absolute best place to dump someone: A tiny boat, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the cold, black sea.

First things first: This is not just about The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s about The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley (Netflix, 2024) and Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023) and Influencer (Kurtis David Harder, 2022) and… Ripley, like Alien and Fatal Attraction, has become its own genre. Its core elements — poor boy meets rich boy; gay boy meets straight boy; poor gay boy falls in love with rich straight boy, then murders him, then takes over his life — have entered the collective unconscious and spawned a half-dozen mutations. 

That said, Minghella’s was the first Ripley I knew, and the only one I knew for a long time, so I’ll re-acquaint you with it before continuing. 

Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, a working-class kid with a talent for impersonation and forgery, who is mistaken for a Princeton student by wealthy boatmaker Herbert Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, has shipped off to Italy (on a boat) and refused to return to the states (on a different boat) because he is too busy (on his personal boat) drinking and whoring and listening to Jazz. Tom lies to Herbert and claims to know Dickie, and so he is shipped off to Italy (on a boat) to retrieve him. 

Here, Dickie and his fiancee Marge are shown enjoying their cherished mutual hobby, boating.

Upon arriving in Italy, Tom Ripley realizes two important facts: One, Dickie Greenleaf is played by Jude Law. Two, Tom is gay. Around half of the people in the theater probably had this same realization when Jude Law showed up, and you can’t blame them. Minghella has a knack for filming beautiful men in the same way that we usually film beautiful women, as pure astonishing spectacle, and it constitutes no small part of the film’s appeal. 

Tom immediately falls in love with Dickie, despite the fact that Dickie is a narcissistic monster who spends his time breaking his fiancée’s heart, impregnating local girls and driving them to suicide, and storming the stage of local nightclubs in a drunken haze while attempting to play Jazz. You might think that no-one in the world would be sexually attractive after performing an impromptu Jazz song in a porkpie hat for their date, and you’d be right, for the most part, but it only makes Dickie Greenleaf more powerful. He’s a freak of nature in that regard. 

Not pictured: Boats.

Then Dickie — again, a literal monster — gets bored, and starts to figure out that Tom is gay and/or poor, so he dumps him. Tom goes sailing with Dickie (on a boat!) and beans Dickie with a boat oar (from the boat!) and kills him after delivering a lecture on the evils of bisexuality. (“Is it the horn? Is it the drums? Which is it, Dickie???? Which do you actually play????”) Tom, of course, conveys his rampant biphobia by using an analogy to Jazz. It’s the only language Dickie understands! That, and boat oars to the head, which get the point across very quickly. 

Anyway: Tom sinks the murder scene (murder what, now?), escapes to Rome, and starts a new life, posing as Dickie Greenleaf. Complications arise, old faces reappear, and Tom finds himself stuck in a tragic chain reaction of crime and cover-up, in which he is perpetually destroying evidence and then destroying the evidence that something has been destroyed, always one wrong move away from having his whole ugly history brought to light. 

The fact that I had a thing for The Talented Mr. Ripley in college is well known. It was one of those movies I watched over and over, back when I had only five DVDs and way too much spare time. I’m not sure why. Sexuality was probably part of it; I think this was the first movie I’d ever seen where a man fell in love with another man, which is more grim commentary on the state of media in the early 2000s than anything else. At the time, I thought it was about class; I was a lower-middle-class kid who had seen some poverty, attending a pricy liberal arts college with a bunch of kids whose parents were rich-rich, and I spent a lot of time hoping that the boat oar of Life would catch them on the skull. 

Yet, as many times as I’ve watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, I can’t remember a single thing that happens after Jude Law dies. As far as I’m concerned, the movie is just an hour-long drama about Matt Damon getting his heart broken on a boat. Dickie must have captivated Minghella, too; their relationship takes up fully half of the movie, whereas in every other adaptation, Dickie is gone by the end of the first act. 

I say this because every other version of Ripley gets exponentially more interesting after its Dickie Greenleaf dies. At its core, Ripley isn’t about longing or even envy. It’s about shame: Having a beautiful, golden person that you are for the world, and a dirty, wrong person that you are in your heart, and living your whole life in a panic, waiting for the moment when your mask slips and everyone finally sees the horror that you are.  

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also there on the boat.

There’s a popular self-help book — hear me out! — a popular self-help book for gay men called The Velvet Rage, which says that all queer people are, on some level, acquainted with shame, and that many of us are destroyed by how we let that shame run our lives. 

This isn’t about coming out. It isn’t about admitting you’re gay, or being cool with gay people. It’s about growing up with a sense that there is something wrong with you — some facet of your being that makes you fundamentally unacceptable, laughable, disgusting, which you cannot ever get rid of or fix. While that shame may start off as being about sexuality, it soon grows into a fundamental conviction that you are bad inside, and that anyone who ever truly knew you would hate you. That conviction lingers long after you’ve consciously accepted being gay. You may manage to completely divorce it from your sexuality. No matter how politicized or queer-positive you are, the sense of having a contaminated core self and being uniquely unworthy of love persists.

The book’s author, Alan Downs, says that many gay men try to cover up that contaminated, shameful inner self with a perfect outer persona. They embellish their lives. They become perfectly stylish and perfectly hot and perfectly fit, and they have great taste and great friend circles and great homes and great careers, they are successful and they are connected and they are hot and they are cool. They’re all that, but they’re also miserable, because all of the validation they get is aimed at their false self — they’re admired for pretending to be someone they're not, so they still feel, on some level, that anyone who really knew them would turn away. The only thing that can actually heal shame is being seen and accepted for who they are, but after a lifetime of abuse and rejection and bigotry, many queer people are convinced that exposing their human failings would literally kill them.

It is hard to think of a more obvious metaphor for all this than The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon spends the entire back half of the movie pretending to be his “good” self, Dickie Greenleaf — the one with the great apartment and the great clothes and the great social circle and the great life; the one who is loudly, aggressively, incurably heterosexual — and is perpetually terrified that his “bad” self, Tom Ripley, will be exposed. Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf cancel each other out. Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf know all the same people, go to all the same places, but, like Clark Kent and Superman, they can never be in the same place at the same time. Tom Ripley has, in fact, killed Dickie Greenleaf — the queer self has killed the straight one — but no-one knows, because the bad self can still dress up like the good one and walk around town. 

As I say, The Velvet Rage is a self-help book, and a relatively corny one (Downs uses a really specific, cis, upwardly mobile, white-coded definition of “gay” throughout) but it did make sense of some things for me, like why so many nominally supportive queer spaces turn into backbiting high school cafeterias (the Perfect Self, once established as a lifeline, must be more Perfect than every other Perfect Self in the room) or why conflict is often so hard between queers. When I first came out, I was baffled by how difficult it was to have ordinary disagreements with other queer people — people would lash out, blow up, disappear, cut off contact, when I thought I was just trying to be straightforward. I know that I'm not the most subtle person, and that I can miss social cues at times, but these were extreme misunderstandings, even by my standards. People acted as if they were scared of me, and I could not for the life of me see what I had done to freak them out. Now, though, I think those people really were scared. So was I, for that matter. We weren't scared of each other, but of shame, of being exposed as Bad, of losing the polished armor that was the only thing keeping us alive.

This is a metaphor (for the perils of boating).

Once Tom Ripley has killed Dickie Greenleaf, he has to keep killing people — even good people, even people he likes or loves, because any one of them could expose his hidden self and end his life. Committing to the mask means committing to being alone forever. Tom Ripley isn’t afraid he’ll be outed as gay, he’s afraid he’ll be outed as a bad person. Matt Damon’s Ripley is touching, and tragic, because he’s just finding out that he’s a bad person. Every other Ripley, including Highsmith’s, knows he’s bad, and has probably always known it. He just doesn’t want any other people to find out. 

As we transition to a shame-based social economy, more and more people become governed by that fear. In my favorite recent Ripley story, Influencer – about which I will tell you nothing, except that it is far better than a movie called Influencer has any right to be the characters are at least nominally straight. Life on social media, like life under the harsh gaze of heteronormativity, is built on social competition and shame and building up a perfect imaginary self that can be utterly destroyed in an instant. We all live in glass houses under 24-hour surveillance. Gay people aren’t the only ones who have to be paranoid any more. 

Minghella’s Ripley often gets pity-chucked onto lists of 1990s erotic thrillers because it’s “the gay one” (all ‘90s erotic thrillers are The Gay One if you know how to look) but that sells it short. Ripley works, so many times, and in so many incarnations, because it is everyone’s story, whether we are poor and/or gay and/or murderers or not. It’s not just about The Talented Mr. Ripley, and never was about Ripley; it’s about me, and you, and you, and you, whoever you are. 

All right! It's time to tally this erotic thriller up on our equally erotic spreadsheet:

Terrifying Female Sexuality: Hmmm… Cate Blanchett’s female sexuality is annoying, at times, but terrifying? No. A rare miss in this department. 

Stalking: Tragically, the book He’s Just Not That Into You was not yet available in the 1950s. 

Gay People: And how! 

Boats: And how! If nothing else, the sheer number and quality of boats would classify this thriller as erotic. 

Death… by MURDER!!!: Do you think Dickie ever paused to think about how ironic it was that he was getting murdered by boat equipment? I mean, granted, he didn’t have that much time to process. Still, I bet it gave him a little chuckle. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley is streaming on Paramount+. The new Netflix Ripley (also pretty good, and closer to the novel) is on Netflix, obviously. Saltburn definitely exists, should you want to see it. Influencer, which I really do want you to see, is on Shudder.

Also: I just got word that my short story, "Contagious" is going to be in the first issue of BOOM's Hello Darkness anthology, coming out July 24th. Letizia Cadonici, Alessandro Santoro and Becca Carey, the team from The Neighbors, are all coming back for the story, so place a pre-order at your local comic store now, and pick it up next month.

Finally, it's Pride Month, and you know what that means: I, your local gay newsletter merchant, am giving you a discount on the first 12 months of your subscription. Act now to enjoy these big natural savings: