Tuesday 2 February 2010

Ripley Under Ground Movie Review

So I watched the Roger Spottiswoode film version of Ripley Under Ground – co-written, incidentally, by Donald E. Westlake, alias Richard Stark – and it ain't that great. There are all sorts of problems with the movie – Barry Pepper's performance as Tom Ripley is decidedly lacklustre (physically he reminds me of a young Gary Busey, but with none of the intensity or magnetism or, apparently, acting ability); Willem Dafoe as art collector Murchison is pretty bloody awful – but the main issue is that Tom is effectively neutered. The decision was evidently taken to make Ripley Under Ground (the film) standalone, but the problem there is, by removing Tom's backstory, you get no sense of the awful things he did in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and his general lack of conscience in doing them. The best that Spottiswoode and co. can come up with for Tom in the movie is that he's a bit of a rogue and a bit of a chancer. That's not the Tom Ripley we know and love (or indeed loathe).

And so, logically, I can see why they also took the decision to make Murchison's murder... not a murder. In this film, it becomes pretty much an accident – because this Tom clearly hasn't killed before, so he has no impetus to start doing so now. He gets in a fight with Murchison when Murchison uncovers the forgery and deception at the heart of the story, sure, and he hides the body, but he doesn't actually kill him. In fact, Tom doesn't kill anyone in the movie. That's a major piece of the Ripley psyche removed right there, possibly even the most important piece: his willingness to kill to preserve his way of life, and his almost total lack of conscience about killing (with the exception of Dickie Greenleaf – maybe).

Once you remove that aspect of Ripley, that murderous thread of self-preservation born of the sense of entitlement he has for a better existence for himself, everything else falls apart, which is why the film doesn't work. In the end it's actually left to Tom's girlfriend-cum-wife Heloise to take up the potential criminal mantle, because now it makes no sense for Tom to do so (her eventual taking control of events is slightly foreshadowed throughout the film).

It's not all bad, mind. Ian Hart (who would go on to play Tom Ripley himself in a series of BBC Radio 4 adaptations of Highsmith's Ripliad) is quite good as painter/forgerer(erer) Bernard, and Tom Wilkinson is eminently watchable as the police inspector, Webster (Wilkinson is always great, as anyone who's seen his performance in Michael Clayton can attest); there's a nice bumbling sequence where the two of them are driving round the English countryside trying to find the house where Ripley, Jeff Constant and co. have hidden the body of Derwatt, the painter Bernard's been forging. But as a result of the meddling with Tom's character and motivation, what you're left with is a mildly entertaining but essentially toothless movie – and definitely not a genuine Ripley flick.


  1. Well that certainly took me long enough. Hooray for computers being able to play DVDs from anywhere.

    Maybe my expectations were lowered after a decade of hearing about how mediocre the film supposedly was, but I liked it a lot more than you did.

    It commits the same sin as the Matt Damon film, making Tom too innocent by turning intentional killings into accidents, but it worked far better for me overall. It plays up the black comedy elements of the books and captures their humor better than any of the other Ripley films, and it does a very good job of showing Tom as a brilliant improviser as the shit just keeps piling up. And despite making Tom's crimes less severe, it still portrays him as a magnificent bastard and scoundrel; and it's confident that we'll root for him despite said bastardry without resorting to embarrassing attempts at "humanizing" him by, say, making him a lonely closet case who just wants to be loved.

    It's well-directed, looks good despite the low budget (aside from an awful CGI explosion with the car crash near the beginning), the actors were all good, and the script has some great witty dialogue. The whole thing moves like a thriller should and actually captured the tension of Highsmith despite the lighter than usual tone, no small feat. So many nice details I could waste paragraphs commenting on: finally seeing Tom in disguise on-screen (Pepper's great here), making Heloise more implicit in Tom's scheming (arguably an improvement on the book), Tom having to clean the bloodied dogs (one of them is named Nietzsche, an especially nice touch), etc. I could go on, but I'm trying to curb my long-windedness these days.

    It's watered-down Ripley for sure, but I think after four other films, I've grown accustomed to them not really capturing the books entirely, and I'm more willing to accept these standalone adaptations, at least as long as they're well-made and entertaining and capture at least something of the spirit of the novels without completely insulting them. The American Friend is still my favorite by far. Purple Noon I'll always have a love/hate relationship with because of that fucking ending with Tom getting caught. I guess I would rank Ripley Under Ground alongside Ripley's Game; both are terrific films and don't especially offend me as a fan of the books despite the liberties they take. And then there's the Matt Damon film, which I'd like to take out on a boat, somewhere in Italy, way out where nobody can see...

    I'll certainly give Under Ground another viewing soon, and maybe I'll be less pleased with it the second time around, but this time I finished it with a smile on my face.